U.S. Army to tap into AT&T’s FirstNet at military bases

The Army says it's forced to buy $13 million in FirstNet public safety equipment from AT&T because there are no alternatives on the market.
(Image: AT&T/Graphic: The Desk)

The U.S. Army is purchasing AT&T equipment compatible with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) public safety platform for police, firefighters and other officials at more than 70 military bases in the country.

As part of a $13 million agreement with AT&T, the U.S. Army will purchase smartphones and other gear that are compatible with AT&T’s commercial network and the FirstNet protocol. The devices will come pre-loaded with a handful of apps and tools, including one called PocketCop that allows FirstNet users to look up individuals in various government databases.

Details of the arrangement were first published in a public listing on the General Services Administration website earlier this month.

The U.S. Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM) is overseeing the purchase and deployment of the AT&T FirstNet devices across more than 70 U.S. Army bases in the United States.

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In a contract reviewed by The Desk on Tuesday, IMCOM said it chose to deal with AT&T because it was required to obtain wireless devices and services from a contractor that had an agreement with the Naval Supply Systems Command program known as Navy Spiral 3.

Though companies other than AT&T have agreement with Navy Spiral 3, IMCOM was forced to sign an agreement with them because they have an exclusive agreement with the federal government, territories and all 50 state governments to supply FirstNet-capable devices.

“Therefore, AT&T is the only Navy Spiral 3 holder that can provide the required service of (the) public safety broadband network known as FirstNet,” IMCOM wrote in the contract, adding that there are no alternatives that “comply with all — not some — of the capabilities that are provided in the public safety broadband known as FirstNet.”

“Market research has validated that AT&T has a 25-year exclusive agreement with the Department of Commerce to provide FirstNet wireless services in the United States,” IMCOM wrote.

FirstNet was launched as a way to bridge various public safety communication networks following a string of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Federal investigators found police, fire and other agencies responding to the World Trade Center weren’t able to communicate with each other because of incompatible systems and overloaded circuits — a situation that was made worse by the unreliability of both land-line and cellular networks that day.

In 2012, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, which opened the door for the creation of FirstNet. Congress gave the National Telecommunications and Information Agency $7 billion and a significant chunk of licensed radio spectrum for the development of the public safety network with the goal of improving inter-agency communications by making radios and devices interoperable.

Following the creation of FirstNet, AT&T successfully lobbied federal and state lawmakers to award it an exclusive contract to provide FirstNet capable services and devices to public safety agencies. The 25-year contract with the Department of Commerce was inked in 2017.

The move pushed out rival Verizon, which was developing a similar initiative called Verizon Connect. Verizon continues to offer services that are built on top of its own network as well as FirstNet.

After AT&T secured its contracts, it began offering smartphones and other devices that work on its 4G LTE and 5G commercial networks in tandem with public safety networks operated by local, state and federal government agencies. AT&T has promised priority on its commercial network for connections coming from FirstNet devices used by law enforcement, firefighters and other safety personnel, a move intended to help ease concerns about network congestion.

But a partial reliance on AT&T’s commercial network means FirstNet is sometimes susceptible to the same outages that consumer and business customers face. Earlier this week, an outage impacting AT&T’s wireless network also brought down portions of the FirstNet service in South Carolina, according to a local television station.

(Disclosure: The author of this story owned stock in AT&T as of the publication date of the article.)

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