AT&T Wins FirstNet Contract

AT&T has been awarded the multi-billion-dollar, 25-year contract to build and maintain FirstNet, the interoperable first responder public safety network proposed by the 911 Commission well over a decade ago following first responder communication failures during the attack's tragic aftermath.

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross made the announcement Thursday at a signing ceremony. The network is a $46.5 billion public/private partnership with Commerce. Ross said the network will create 10,000 jobs initially and thousands more down the line.

Essentially, FirstNet will have priority use of spectrum whenever it is needed for emergency communications. It was funded through the FCC's AWS-3 wireless spectrum auction. If the AWS-3 auction had not covered it, the money would have had to come out of the broadcast incentive auction.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said AT&T was honored to build the network for first responders that he said would be "second to none."

He said AT&T would spend $40 billion on the network beginning this fall, creating those 10,000 jobs over the next two years. "We're ready to get started," he said, and thanked Ross for the opportunity. At the contract signing, Stephenson turned to Ross and emphasized AT&T's $40 billion. Ross responded: "$46.5 billion." That $6.5 is the government's contribution via the spectrum auction proceeds.

AT&T also said in a statement on the contract that it will give first responders access to its existing network assets, which the company valued at more than $180 million.

In addition to Ross and Stephenson, among those on hand for the announcement were FCC chairman Ajit Pai and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Walden was a prime mover behind the spectrum auction legislation of which FirstNet was an important part. Ross called him "the godfather" of the FirstNet project, along with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), former chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Walden thanked staffers David Redl and Ray Baum for their work on the project, and gave shout outs to Communications Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Democrats Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and former House E&C Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was in the audience, for their work as well.

Walden commended the FirstNet board and execs. He pointed out that as a former small market radio owner, he knew the value of having instant communications. "This is a huge step forward," he said. He also thanked the FCC, particularly under the "able leadership" of Pai.

Blackburn thanked first responders. She said FirstNet would bring safety "to our communities and our streets." She said she was pleased AT&T would be part of the process of building out the network, and showing that government and the private sector can get together to solve problems. She said her subcommittee will be a part of the proces as well.

Pai said the first task of any nation is to keep its people safe, which is difficult in a digital age.

He said he was honored to congratulate FirstNet, calling the signing ceremony a capstone of years of work. He thanked all those in Congress who helped push FirstNet across the finish line. He said FCC was committed to the network, pointing out the FCC had freed up the 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 M<HZ auction that is being used. He also thanked AT&T for stepping up.

The announcement followed the FirstNet board's unanimous authorization for FirstNet CEO Mike Poth—or someone he designated—to finalize awarding of the contract, a move that drew the praise of the Competitive Carriers Association, whose members are ready to team up with the winner to help reach the rural areas they serve.

In August, the board approved $6.5 billion in support of the contract—though the network could ultimately cost much more—and in December unveiled a plan for the first three months after the award is granted, which should be kicking in Thursday. 

FirstNet also earlier this month resolved a complaint about the contract-awarding process, paving the way for the award.

"FirstNet today took a major leap forward in delivering a dedicated national network that will give first responders the bandwidth, speed, security, and reliability they clearly need," said Telecommunications Industry Association senior VP Cinnamon Rogers. "We applaud FirstNet for its expeditious work to finalize this decision, and we believe AT&T understands the challenges of this project and has the experience and leadership needed to drive it forward. The two organizations will now begin the vital work of building a network that leads to more efficient public safety communications—and ultimately, saves lives."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.