First responders benefit from priority and preemption, but those benefits are further enhanced with the right equipment in vehicles and on-site
Is FirstNet worth it? Understanding the importance of a first responder network is best illustrated by the challenges faced during an emergency scenario without FirstNet.
On September 11, 2001, emergency responders from various agencies rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center in New York City to rescue survivors and provide critical aid. At the time, the communication infrastructure was not equipped to handle the scale and complexity of the emergency. Not only did first responders have incompatible radio systems hindering their ability to communicate and coordinate efforts, but the sheer volume of public calls overloaded the network, further straining the response efforts.
These experiences highlighted the critical need for a dedicated, interoperable communication network for first responders. Today, that network is known as FirstNet.
What is FirstNet?
FirstNet is a dedicated public safety cellular communications network supporting first responders in all U.S. states and territories. First responders on FirstNet get prioritized access on all AT&T commercial bands. In an emergency, this “VIP lane” operates in the 700 MHz frequency band known as Band 14 and is only accessible to FirstNet subscribers. The penetration and propagation of this spectrum band make it ideal for use in situations where physical obstacles and network congestion are unpredictable.
Who is eligible for FirstNet?
FirstNet eligibility is commonly associated with law enforcement, fire, and medical response teams. Those who qualify as a FirstNet extended user also include city services and infrastructure agencies such as irrigation, electric, restoration, waste disposal services, and more.
How do subscribers access FirstNet?
Accessing the FirstNet network isn’t as simple as having a “.org” email address. Users must subscribe to a FirstNet plan and be in a FirstNet coverage area. Additionally, subscribers must be using a FirstNet SIM card and approved device. These devices undergo a rigorous certification and testing process and are ultimately certified as:
- FirstNet Ready: phones, tablets, and other consumer devices
- FirstNet Trusted: IoT devices, sensors, routers, and modems
- FirstNet Capable: all other devices supporting high-priority access
Although FirstNet is an LTE-based technology, subscribers using a 5G device can attach to the 5G network through FirstNet as long as their device has been certified. This opens the door for agencies to expand and future-proof their device portfolio — including modems and routers — to take advantage of FirstNet 5G.
Choosing the best router for FirstNet
Priority and preemption alone may be enough to answer the question, “Is FirstNet worth it?” These FirstNet features allow subscribers to bypass network congestion by separating public safety network traffic from the rest of the chatter, giving first responders and other vital safety and emergency response teams a VIP communication lane.
Access to communication channels is further enhanced by FirstNet’s Response Operations Group (ROG) that proactively deploy assets such as cells on light trucks (COLTs) and cells on wheels (COWs), standing up mission critical network connectivity for first responders when commercial power or cell towers are unavailable.
Many FirstNet COLTs and COWs are equipped with satellite (such as Starlink) and 5G routers, emphasizing how selecting the right FirstNet hotspot can greatly impact user experience. Whether in a vehicle, at a pop-up response site, or at a permanent station, having a purpose-built router that supports FirstNet can:
- Provide access to multiple modems, meaning first responders can use SIM cards from more than one carrier (e.g., AT&T FirstNet and Verizon Frontline) for failover.
- Enable precision location tracking — within centimeters — using real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning vs. traditional global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).
- Capitalize on 4x4 MIMO to fine-tune connectivity to the FirstNet network through carrier aggregation and firmware updates.
Most FirstNet subscribers work from a vehicle or temporary location. Whether that be a police car, a fire engine, a utility truck, or a pop-up Red Cross shelter, emergency service personnel need routers that are:
- Ruggedized: from extreme temperatures to wet or dusty environments, a router and its accessories must withstand a wide variety of response conditions.
- Versatile: compact routers are easy to install, even in areas with very little room. A rooftop router is another option to reduce installation complexity and cost.
- Futureproof: the right router should last and be suited for both LTE and 5G networks. Thoughtful futureproofing reduces the need for additional investments to meet compatibility needs.
Managing FirstNet-enabled fleets
Stressful response efforts aren’t limited to those in the field. IT teams managing FirstNet fleets and determining if FirstNet is worth it are also under pressure to establish, monitor, and troubleshoot connectivity. When personnel, vehicles, and sites are dispersed, this can become unwieldy, particularly for lean IT teams.
Cloud management services such as Cradlepoint’s NetCloud Manager simplify the configuration and deployment of distributed networks while allowing IT teams to troubleshoot remotely, keeping response teams connected when it matters most.