FirstNet hits 1 million subs, adds a blimp to deployable line-up

AT&T says Band 14 build-out is more than 75% complete

AT&T-FirstNet is now serving more than a million connections, with more than 10,000 public safety agencies and organization subscribed to the service, AT&T reported.

The carrier said that its build out of Band 14 700 MHz spectrum is more than 75% complete at this point and that it is “well ahead of schedule,” with Band 14 access available in more than 675 markets across the United States. When all of AT&T’s spectrum bands — to which FirstNet subscribers have access — are considered, the carrier says that its prioritized service for first responders covers 99% of the U.S. population.

AT&T said that it plans to launch its mission-critical push-to-talk service, FirstNet Push-to-Talk, in early 2020 — which appears to reflect another delay in the voice-centric, standards-based feature. In mid-2018, AT&T-FirstNet had indicated that it expected to roll out the capability in early 2019, after putting out an RFP with an eye toward selecting multiple vendors while also ensuring interoperability.

AT&T highlighted other aspects of the current FirstNet ecosystem, from its current line-up of more than 100 devices supporting FirstNet to more than 100 applications in its app store.

In addition, FirstNet subscribers have a new deployable option: a 55-foot Aerostat, or blimp, which the carrier says can fly at heights up to 1,000 feet and potentially provide twice the coverage area that solutions such as satellite-backhauled Cells on Wheels or flying cell sites on drones can offer. The blimp — dubbed FirstNet One — can stay airborne for about two weeks before it needs to have its helium supply refreshed, AT&T said, and it’s tethered to a trailer that provides either satellite or wired backhaul. This makes the fourth airborne deployable option for FirstNet; it also has three flying cell sites available, with 76 deployables total. One of the FirstNet board’s targeted areas for reinvestment this fiscal year is in expanding FirstNet’s portfolio of deployables.

AT&T said that the blimp was recently tested in Tuskegee, Alabama, to test everything from its initial coverage area and power and data transmission lines to the FirstNet core, to flight controls and the operational methods and safety standards for launching, operating and recovering it in an incident response scenario.

Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings said in a statement that “witnessing the FirstNet One aerostat airborne test was fascinating and being onsite to see the operations and speak with the team reinforced the value of the FirstNet communications platform,” adding that the agency’s FirstNet relationship “is critical to exploring innovative and creative communication capabilities.”

FirstNet deployables have responded to more than 450 public safety requests for supplementary coverage this year, either for planned events or emergencies, AT&T reported.

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