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AT&T Scores $6.5B Contract to Build Nation's First Public Safety Broadband Network

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AT&T plans to spend about $40 billion over the next 25 years to build a broadband network reserved primarily for public safety officers.

A Commerce Department agency that functions as a public-private partnership is awarding AT&T about $6.5 billion to over the next five years to build, deploy and maintain the network. That funding was generated from spectrum auctions.

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, aims to create a separate network to be used by about 5.4 million public safety, fire, police and emergency medical officers at the state, local and federal levels to exchange images, data about specific emergencies, or voice communication without burdening commercial networks.

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The concept was proffered by the 9/11 Commission, which recommended building a broadband network "that equips first responders with the latest technology to save lives," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday during an event announcing the partnership with AT&T.

The network will also reserve about 20 MHz of spectrum for private sector use, part of an effort to self-fund, according to FirstNet. Linking the same network across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories means it will be "upgradable to the next layer of technology, each and every time, at the same time, for first responders across the country," FirstNet President TJ Kennedy said at that event.

Building and maintaining the network could create about 10,000 jobs over the next two years, according to FirstNet.

Kennedy has asked tech companies to adapt their commercial products so first responders can use the most current technology on the field, especially once FirstNet enables quicker communication. For instance, average consumers might find the iPhone's thumbprint authentication quick and easy to use, but firefighters wearing heavy protective gloves might need a new way to authenticate into their smartphones—maybe iris scans or voice recognition.

At a recent event in Washington, Kennedy urged the private sector to "challenge your R&D teams, challenge your board of directors to solve the problems for public safety. Come up with the tools that allow you to have dual authentication without a 12-digit, uppercase, lowercase, special character password. They exist today, but must of you don't use them."

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