AT&T’s FirstNet deal means more but slower broadband in rural California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Governor Brown’s decision to join the federal FirstNet public safety radio system has pluses and minuses for rural broadband development in California. The system is intended to provide data connectivity and interoperable communications for police, fire and other first responder agencies across the U.S. The federal government awarded a $6.5 billion contract to AT&T to build and operate it.

As a part of the deal, AT&T is getting 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. It’s allowed to use it for consumer broadband service so long as public safety communications have priority. The company plans to combine the FirstNet build out with deployment of its rural fixed wireless broadband service, which runs on a similar slice of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band and promises 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds.

Both FirstNet and AT&T’s wireless local loop service are based on 4G LTE technology, and not the next generation 5G standard that’ll be the basis for urban mobile broadband service upgrades.

On the plus side, it means that AT&T has to extend its wireless broadband reach to pretty much every remote corner of California. AT&T will likely lease existing facilities or contract out operations in some cases, but it will be doing a lot of construction work too. Since the core technology it’s deploying supports both public safety and consumer users, any place it plants a FirstNet tower should also get at least a minimum level of wireless broadband service. Should.

On the minus side, the deal will turbocharge AT&T’s campaign to rip out rural copper networks and replace them with low speed wireless broadband systems. The federal government is already subsidising that effort with its Connect America Fund program. The combination of FirstNet’s extra dollars and spectrum, and the regulatory grease that comes with public safety projects makes it even cheaper and easier for AT&T to fence off rural communities from competition while offering substandard service at monopoly prices.