A Public Safety Core Network is Born

AT&T announced its launch of a dedicated core network supporting FirstNet mobile broadband data traffic that originates on AT&T's commercial radio access network. As a dedicated architecture, AT&T is deploying physically separate hardware elements solely for FirstNet network functionality. Core network elements are responsible for IP packet processing, security protection, IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) functions and gateway interconnections to external IP networks. The dedicated FirstNet core is in final stages of FirstNet Authority verification testing and is slated for general availability in the April or May timeframe. 

Along with its launch of the dedicated core, AT&T unveiled First Priority, its new trademark that covers the system's priority features and a new Incident Management Portal that provides local emergency services officials with priority control tools. The company expanded on its baseline priority offer available to early FirstNet adopters by adding two additional priority levels for a total of three priority options. 

What stands out

For the most part, AT&T's FirstNet core launch simply fulfills its contractual commitment to the FirstNet Authority. LTE radio traffic over devices using FirstNet SIMs is shunted to the dedicated core once it leaves the cell site. What is more interesting than the dedicated core is the additional detail offered on prioritization mechanisms. The new First Priority offer expands the number of priority levels and, as a result, hints at the possibility of 3GPP Release 13 support. But that also requires changes to AT&T's radio access network that may not be ready at this time. 

The second element that is important in this announcement is the discussion around the Incident Management Portal (IMP). The IMP is potentially a crucial differentiator that sets AT&T apart from other service providers working to match FirstNet functionality. In this announcement, AT&T specifically points to the prospect of local agencies adjusting the priority levels of non-public safety partners that are part of an operation. This expansion of priority control is important because it has the potential of creating a network effect that will draw in subscriptions from the electric, gas and transportation sectors. The capability is a win-win for both public safety and the partner organizations. The greater the number of agencies and partner organizations linked to the IMP, the more essential the FirstNet network becomes.

Finally, what sets AT&T's dedicated core apart from its competitor's dedicated cores is the oversight supplied by the FirstNet Authority. One reason why AT&T is not in a position to arbitrarily announce a "go live" date is that the FirstNet Authority continues its testing process to ensure the core network meets requirements for security and performance.  This added layer of acceptance testing provides a valuable set of checks and balances in support of FirstNet's constituency. 

Details remain missing

As wide-ranging as its announcement was, AT&T leaves some key details to the reader's imagination. These questions include:

  • Are the priority levels linked to 3GPP Release 13 QCIs supporting mission-critical push-to-talk and data?
  • Are the new priority levels operational in the AT&T radio access network as well as the core network?
  • What Incident Management Portal APIs are available to application developers working on console or incident management applications?
  • How will AT&T manage the integration of non-public safety organizations into the Incident Management Portal?
  • Do users with today's FirstNet SIMs need to get replacement SIMs to access the dedicated core network?
  • AT&T notes that some existing devices may need firmware updates to work with the new FirstNet SIM. Are those firmware updates available now?

A violation of KISS?

It is not hard to get carried away implementing features that are "only software" and dynamic priority mechanisms touted by AT&T may be a case in point. To be sure, priority levels are crucial to ensure public safety teams have access and preferential traffic treatment during times of intense network congestion. But dynamically adjusting priority on the fly injects troubling complexity and uncertainty into already chaotic incident operations. Simply put, the more complex the user interface and underlying software functionality, the more prone the systems will be to errors from humans or software.

Does a dedicated core network matter?

When most applications are built using cloud hosted elements and device-based user interfaces, the core serves as a pipe. While there may be security benefits to isolating the network elements of the core network, the end users see no difference if accessing web-based applications via a FirstNet core or a competitor's dedicated core. That said, some applications may be hosted entirely within the FirstNet core. The most likely candidate application is mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT). With core-based MCPTT, interoperability becomes a driver that will cause agencies to migrate to FirstNet. Until then, agencies may not have much motivation to shift from other network solutions. Indeed, cost and radio coverage considerations are much more likely to influence agency decisions. 

In the end, a battle for mindshare

First Priority marks an important milestone in AT&T's efforts. By fulfilling its promise to the FirstNet Authority to bring a dedicated core network to market, AT&T helps boost the confidence of prospective agencies. And by providing an Incident Management Portal, AT&T fulfills local control commitments made by the FirstNet Authority. Furthermore, by setting the IMP as a basis of inter-agency collaboration during a crisis, AT&T is finding ways to make First Priority a differentiated offer that can benefit from a community network effect. In the meantime, AT&T needs to engage with application developers to ensure the full potential of the Incident Management Portal is realized. By capturing application developer mindshare early, AT&T can dull developer interest in engaging with subsequent me-too attempts by AT&T competitors. The opening shot provided by this launch is a powerful start.