GAO Report Say AT&T’s FirstNet Ahead of Schedule, but User Experience Varies

In terms of deliverables for FirstNet, AT&T seems to be ahead on most accounts.  The chart below shows their progress in the two primary phases.  (The report was done on data from July 2019).

The GAO did note some comments and concerns addressed in their interviews with stakeholders.  In reading the following, it is important to remember that each state “negotiated” an agreement with AT&T on what the requirements would be for that state so users’ experience may be directly a result of how well their state did or did not in negotiating terms.  Here is a direct quote from the GAO report (page 23).

Indeed, while many state and local public-safety officials we spoke to were pleased with their experience migrating to or piloting the network, numerous officials told us about experiences that fell short of their expectations for a public-safety broadband network backed by the government. Numerous officials told us that they had concerns about misleading or disorganized sales tactics from AT&T representatives. For example, while some officials said that their AT&T representative had been candid in explaining the limited available coverage in their area, many officials told us about instances when AT&T  representatives had shown them maps depicting more coverage than actually existed or that were insufficiently granular for their mission work. Similarly, while many officials recounted positive experiences with network coverage or performance or AT&T representatives, many also described instances when equipment failed to work or perform as expected during piloting phases or exercises. In some instances, these officials stated that FirstNet or AT&T representatives explained, after the fact, that differences in user experience were to be expected depending on the device model or subscriber identity module (SIM) card being employed. Specifically, FirstNet or AT&T officials explained that the optimal performance could only be achieved when Band 14 devices connected to a Band 14 cell site.

According to FirstNet officials, the best experience will be when subscribers use a Band 14-capable FirstNet-ready device with a FirstNet SIM card while in a Band 14 coverage area. The officials said any other combination could result in slightly degraded performance or features being unavailable. This is notable given that Band 14 coverage is still limited and generally state and local public-safety officials do not have insight as to where these sites were located or when, if ever, coverage will be expanding, as previously discussed. As stated above, at its final operating capability, the network utilizing Band 14 spectrum will not cover the entire country. Many officials also expressed concerns about the network’s quality of service, priority, and preemption capabilities over the long run or during a catastrophic event. They speculated about the type or expanding number of subscribers allowed on the network or whether at some point in the future, the network would become saturated because non-public safety organizations or individuals (either extended-primary users or non-verified public-safety subscribers) were being granted priority and preemption capabilities. Exacerbating these concerns, many officials noted that they did not have insight into who had subscribed even within their own agency or state, or lacked confidence in how FirstNet or AT&T verifies individuals’ public-safety status, based on anecdotal experiences. Further, some officials also raised concerns about their inability to test the network during congested periods or simulate catastrophic power failures and lack of insight into if or how AT&T had hardened the network. Many officials discussed or shared after-action reports or their testing results with us, and several communicated that they had shared or would be willing to share such information with FirstNet as well to support validation of the network’s actual performance.

If you are a public safety user, what has your experience been with FirstNet?

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