IWCE Virtual: Highlighting FirstNet use amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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FirstNet-AT&T has helped connect ambulances providing mutual aid for areas hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, provided connectivity for coronavirus testing facilities and is being creatively integrated into telehealth solutions, according to Ed Parkinson, CEO of the FirstNet Authority.

Parkinson, speaking at this week’s IWCE Virtual event, said that since March, FirstNet-AT&T has fielded 75 requests for deployables to boost connectivity at locations around the country. Those included both pandemic-related response and other incidents as well.

“We are seeing a huge increase in the use of FirstNet through this pandemic,” Parkinson said, going on to add that “Healthcare workers and responders are using it at COVID-19 testing facilities, field hospitals and incident command posts across the country. In fact, not only are we seeing an increase in the use of data  to confront the pandemic, at nearly double the rate of commercial user traffic, we are also seeing innovative ideas on how public safety [can]take advantage of things like telehealth, telemedicine and how these are designing creative ways to integrate the network into their operations.”

Parkinson noted that more than 13,000 agencies and organizations are now FirstNet customers, and that the network now supports more than 1.5 million connections. AT&T, he said, added around 120,000 square miles to the carrier’s overall network last year and is about 80% of the way through its Band 14 build-out, although the initial five-year build-out timeline is only at about the halfway mark.

Parkinson said that the pandemic has made clear the need for a single, nationwide, interoperable network for public safety communications. He highlighted several examples of how the FirstNet network is being used by public safety agencies as part of pandemic response: FirstNet devices allowing seamless push-to-talk capabilities among ambulance technicians called in for mutual aid; FirstNet-powered hot spots and smartphones allowing 911 dispatchers to take calls from their homes or other remote locations so that agencies can enable social-distancing; and telehealth use. Parkinson also said that in the state of Indiana, PTT applications that used FirstNet were integrated with the state Land Mobile Radio network in order to provide seamless multi-agency communications and improve the state’s operation to distribute personal protective equipment to local communities.

FirstNet, he added, plans to collect public safety use cases and best practices that emerge from the pandemic response so that agencies can learn from one another.

Parkinson also mentioned the network reinvestment approved at the June FirstNet board meeting: over $200 million to lay the groundwork for 5G as well as expanding FirstNet’s fleet of deployables.

“Ultimately, there’s nothing like putting the tool in the hands of public safety and seeing them come up with creative and innovative new ways to use our system,” he said. “Our investments will make sure that new technologies are reliable enough and customized to public safety.”

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