Understanding FirstNet and 5G solutions and timelines for public safety agencies
More than 18,500 American public safety agencies and support organizations have adopted FirstNet to manage daily operations and respond in emergency situations with the reliable backing of a dedicated, always-on wireless broadband network. In October 2021, the devices used by these public safety groups accounted for more than 2.8 million connections nationwide, and as access to 5G for first responders expands beyond its current markets, that number will continue to grow.
With faster speeds and lower latency on the horizon, it’s important for users to understand the current state of FirstNet and the steps they can take to prepare for a more ubiquitous 5G first responder network.
Who’s first on FirstNet?
Originally built for first responders like law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, and 911 dispatch teams, FirstNet now also supports other industries such as healthcare providers, utility workers, and school transportation fleets. Essential personnel supporting first responders before, during, or after an emergency are eligible to subscribe to FirstNet to aid in their provision of medical care, disaster response and restoration, and more.
To meet the mission-critical communication needs of these various teams, FirstNet employs network priority and preemption policies. These policies not only push FirstNet devices to the front of the line when accessing the network, but in severe circumstances, they also give first responders VIP network access by moving or momentarily disconnecting public and commercial users to make room for FirstNet subscribers. When networks are particularly congested, priority and preemption allow first responders to seamlessly connect and communicate.
The LA County Fire Department was one of the first organizations in the country to take advantage of FirstNet, which replaced both their Privately built LTE network and their reliance on the highly congested commercial LTE in the Los Angeles area. With premier access to the network through FirstNet, these first responders, firefighters, and other mutual aid partners could communicate, transmit data, and quickly access necessary applications, even at times when the network was overrun, such as rush hour or in the throes of fire season. As network and equipment advancements are made, their response efficacy will continue to improve.
The future of FirstNet with 5G
Access to 5G for first responders is still in its adolescence, available on limited devices, and only in select markets and venues throughout the U.S. For those who can access FirstNet on a 5G network, they are afforded the benefits of increased speeds and ultra-low latency at no additional cost. On top of that, FirstNet subscribers can shift seamlessly from 5G back to LTE as they move between coverage areas and take advantage of priority and preemption for their respective data packets.
Thanks to reduced latency and increased bandwidth on the network, 5G connectivity on FirstNet means public safety and health professionals can take advantage of data-heavy IoT and video solutions that enable them to perform their jobs efficiently during response and recovery assignments. On-the-job applications vary widely, including the transmission of patient data to a hospital from inside an ambulance, or streaming live video from a patrol car to response teams at a police station.
The impact of FirstNet certifications on 5G equipment purchases
FirstNet eligibility requires more than a job title and available network. This dedicated network is built with strict regard to public safety’s unique specifications and requirements, and so are the specific devices that access it. Beyond cellphones, these devices include FirstNet Ready routers and modems, FirstNet hotspots, connected devices in vehicles, IoT, and more.
To access the first responder network and be certified FirstNet Ready, routers must support Band 14 and pass a set of lab tests, field tests, security validations, and mission-critical application testing. Then, when outfitted with a FirstNet SIM and applicable plan, they can utilize the network.
Currently, the 5G certification process is only available for certain routers, and there are no 5G in-vehicle routers that are both FirstNet Ready and able to pass traffic on a 5G network. However, there are FirstNet Ready 5G in-vehicle routers certified on LTE. These routers can pass traffic on LTE today and then 5G once FirstNet completes the certification process, likely sometime in 2022. That being said, available FirstNet device certifications allow users to invest in the latest 5G technology today. Category 20 LTE modems, which are included with most 5G routers, have theoretical throughput of up to 2 Gbps downlink, which is significantly higher than their predecessors. Then, once the 5G device is certified 5G Ready, users will be able to pass traffic at up to 4.14 Gbps.
Moreover, by purchasing a 5G router now, public safety and health professionals can take advantage of improved performance on the LTE network while mitigating the need to purchase new or additional equipment once a 5G FirstNet certification becomes available for the 5G endpoints they’ve already deployed.