AT&T has partnerships with 20 companies to support the deployment of the FirstNet nationwide public safety mobile broadband network in rural areas, said Ed Parkinson, acting CEO of the FirstNet Authority, at the NTCA Technology + Business Conference in Chicago today. Parkinson added that AT&T is looking for more FirstNet rural partners.

The FirstNet Authority is the government unit responsible for the FirstNet public safety network. The organization awarded AT&T the contract to build the FirstNet public safety network in 2017.

AT&T did not immediately reply to an email from Telecompetitor requesting more information about the FirstNet rural partners, but according to Parkinson comments, they may include companies providing backhaul or tower infrastructure and possibly building out radio access networks using spectrum dedicated for FirstNet.

Parkinson made his comments in a question and answer session with Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association.

FirstNet Rural Partners
Bloomfield noted that some rural operators initially were concerned that the FirstNet network might compete with existing rural wireless networks. AT&T is allowed to use extra capacity on the FirstNet network for its own commercial traffic when the network is not in use by public safety users, who have priority and pre-emption capability on the network.

But Parkinson downplayed those concerns, arguing that AT&T already has deployed its own wireless service in areas where it is economical to do so.

FirstNet Session at NTCA Technology + Business Conference

“They want to develop as many rural partnerships as possible,” he said. “AT&T is not looking to be the only solution when it comes to rural” areas.

Parkinson noted that decisions about FirstNet rural partners are made by AT&T but said the FirstNet Authority can sometimes refer a potential partner to the carrier.

He added that AT&T has identified some areas where it is specifically looking for rural partners.

Asked about how rural partners are selected, Parkinson said AT&T is looking for infrastructures such as towers and microwave and other backhaul infrastructure. Potential partners will have strong appeal if they can help AT&T “push the [network] edge out as far as they can.”

In some cases, AT&T could partner with a rural network operator to build the radio network access in an area, Parkinson said. Asked whether that partner would be able to use the network for its own commercial traffic on a non-priority basis as AT&T does, he said that is something that is “envisioned” for the network.

Potentially such an arrangement could benefit AT&T as well, as the carrier might be able to include a roaming agreement in its deal with the rural carrier.

Update April 26– An AT&T spokesperson got back to us today to say that contractual obligations prohibited the company from revealing much about rural partners. “In addition to constructing new sites and adding additional coverage and capacity to existing sites, we will also be working with rural coverage providers where appropriate,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Telecompetitor.

“Additionally, working with Inmarsat Government – a core member of our FirstNet team – we can provide satellite coverage to bring connectivity to rural areas beyond the current reach of our network,” the email said. “We can also utilize the fleet of FirstNet deployables in areas where public safety needs more coverage to respond to and manage unfolding events and incidents.

“Reaching rural and remote parts of America is one of FirstNet’s top priorities. FirstNet is addressing rural coverage needs in multiple ways to deploy the network in places where coverage may be difficult.”

The email referenced a recent AT&T  blog post about high-power towers that can cover more rural space with less total infrastructure, “as can deployable and satellite solutions.”

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