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AT&T clarifies FirstNet service plans, prioritization for utilities

Urgent Communications

Utility companies can subscribe to FirstNet as “extended primary” users of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) being deployed by AT&T, but utilities would not be eligible to receive preemptive access rights to the system unless such access was activated temporarily by a traditional public-safety entity, according to AT&T.

“As an extended-primary subscriber, a utility company providing public safety services in support of first responders has the option to purchase First Priority’s™ priority-access and data-prioritization features to help prioritize and support their critical communications for data/signaling needs,” AT&T said in a prepared statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.

Not all utility communications would be eligible for extended-primary use on the FirstNet system and the accompanying prioritization over consumer traffic, according to an AT&T spokesperson. For instance, sales and marketing personnel for a utility would not be eligible, because they would not have a role in supporting public safety, the spokesperson said.

“Extended primary subscribers are an extended community that could be called on to help support our first responders—from the mitigation, remediation, overhaul, clean up and restoration to the provisioning of other services required during the time of an emergency or its aftermath,” according to a prepared statement from AT&T. “To uphold the integrity of FirstNet, eligibility for extended primary users will be rigorously reviewed before service will be approved.”

In contrast, utility linemen and network technicians would be eligible extended-primary subscribers, because they could support public-safety efforts by maintaining or restoring the power grid at the location of an emergency. In fact, there are circumstances when such utility personnel could be “uplifted” to an access level that would give them preemptive access to FirstNet, just as fire, EMS, law-enforcement, 911 and emergency-management personnel enjoy on a regular basis.

“Primary public safety subscribers (fire, law enforcement, EMS, emergency management and PSAPs) can also temporarily uplift extended-primary subscribers—like utility companies,” according to the AT&T prepared statement. “This can give utility companies an even higher level of priority or temporary preemption capabilities on FirstNet to help them manage the public safety incident—such as clearing downed power lines.”

Exactly how utility connections would be treated within the FirstNet system has been a subject of considerable speculation almost from the moment that Congress passed the legislation creating FirstNet in 2012. Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet, indicated that there was still some uncertainty surrounding the treatment of utilities on the FirstNet system as recently as two months ago. 

“We’re still determining the disposition when it comes to power companies," Sambar said during an interview with IWCE's Urgent Communications prior to IWCE 2018. "That’s a little tougher one to answer, honestly.”

There has been little doubt that certain utility communications meet the public-safety qualification for FirstNet, but there have been significant questions whether utilities would be given the kind of prioritization needed to use FirstNet as the primary service for the most-important communications associated with the power grid or water supply.

AT&T clarifies FirstNet service plans, prioritization for utilities

For instance, these critical communications that directly impact the health of power grid cannot risk being preempted by public safety or any other entity, utility officials have asserted for year. As a result, simple prioritization would not be enough for many utilities to consider transitioning their most critical communications to FirstNet, according to these utility sources.

Even if utilities do not use FirstNet as their primary communications network, AT&T contends that there are compelling reasons for utilities to subscribe to FirstNet as extended-primary users.

“By subscribing to FirstNet, extended-primary users would have access to the additional benefits that FirstNet brings to public safety,” according to the AT&T prepared statement. “This includes access to the FirstNet Applications Ecosystem, security of the physically separate and dedicated FirstNet core, monitoring by the FirstNet Security Operations Center and more.”

In addition, AT&T expressed a willingness to help utilities that subscribe to FirstNet implement solutions that enable interoperability between LTE and legacy LMR systems.

“We look forward to helping utilities with private networks interoperate with our FirstNet subscribers,” AT&T said in the prepared statement. “Standard voice and data services would be interoperable and could be combined with FirstNet’s priority and preemption capabilities. There are also interfaces available that can enable such interoperability, provided they use push-to-talk solutions that are compliant with 3GPP standards.”



Doug Houseman's picture
Doug Houseman on May 21, 2018

The article says nothing about data traffic to and from devices. AT&T has not clearly stated what the process would be for data traffic. Uses like protection, relaying, reclosing and other machine to machine traffic have timing limits and need deterministic routing. 

So far the FCC and AT&T have been underwhelming when it comes to data traffic, support for utilities and the need to keep lights on. 

I have to agree with many people in the industry, until the FCC and AT&T put the utilities are the same footing as other first responders, there is no reason to look at First Net. Either private fiber - because the FCC continues to chase money rather than safety or private wireless is still the way to go. 

When will people in Washington wake up to how critical delivery of energy to people is? 

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