What Is FirstNet? A Complete Guide to the First Responder Authority Network

Communication is key when it comes to disaster and crisis management.

When first responders arrive at the scene of an emergency, they need to be able to quickly and effectively communicate with others inside and outside of their organization. Communication devices play an important role in the way that first responders relay and record important details about the emergency situation at hand. If these organizations do not have a reliable way to communicate in real-time, lives could be at stake.

That’s where the First Responder Cellular Network comes in.

WHITE PAPER: Designing Mission Critical Communications Solutions for First Responders

FirstNet – the nationwide public safety communications platform dedicated to America’s first responders – was created to provide emergency responders with a nationwide, high-speed, broadband mobile network dedicated to public safety. Being built with AT&T, in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), FirstNet is designed to improve communications among first responders.

While FirstNet presents an enormous opportunity for communication device manufacturers looking to take advantage of this new opportunity, it’s important to keep in mind the nature of mission-critical communications.

From device design to module selection, OEMs and application developers need to consider the unique needs of emergency response organizations with emphasis on ruggedness and reliability.


Product applications:

  • Ruggedized tablets and laptops
  • Handhelds
  • Video Surveillance
  • Dash and Body Cameras
  • Telematics
  • Passenger Information Systems
  • Asset Tracking
  • Emergency monitoring and detection

A Timeline of Public Safety Broadband in the US

The First Responder Cellular Network is a dedicated broadband communications network for police, fire, EMS, and other certified first responders who arrive at the scene of accidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other emergency situations.

Essentially, this network prioritizes first responder communication using a tiered strategy to ensure that those who are responding first to a crisis have an uninterrupted line of communication.

First Responder Cellular Network
Telit FirstNet


After the tragedy of 9/11, it became clear that the United States needed to make some changes when it came to improving communication for public safety officials.


Following the 911 Commission's recommendation to create a national public safety network, the FCC decided to work on developing a more reliable way for first responders to communicate in March 2010.


The First Responder Network Authority was authorized to develop and oversee the dedicated nationwide network for first responders starting in February 2012.


In March 2017, the build out of the first responder cellular network began. This cellular network leveraged 20 MHz of government spectrum in the 700 MHz band, also known as Band 14. Just a few months later in December 2017, every U.S. state and territory had already opted in to using this mission-critical communication service.


In 2019, the highly infectious COVID-19 began its rapid worldwide spread. Even as the crisis continues in 2020, the First Responder Network is keeping emergency personnel connected without interruption, so they can save lives.


FirstNet expands its LTE coverage area, surpassing 2.61 million square miles of the U.S.


FirstNet achieves significant milestones:

  • Upgrading the network core for 5G
  • Increasing coverage to more than 2.71 million miles
  • Connecting over 2 million devices

FirstNet also enabled local and state governments and health organizations to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

First Responder Network Market Opportunities

The first responder network opens up a variety of attractive and exciting new opportunities for organizations in the communication device market. From national and state emergency organizations to local first responders, emergency personnel across the country will need devices and equipment that will allow them to take advantage of the first responder network for faster, more reliable mission-critical communication.


Regardless of where the emergency personnel and organizations are located, they will have reliable coverage with access to Band 14 and commercial LTE bands for priority and preemption. That means that they will need that leverage push-to-talk, voice, data, text, and video to communicate effectively.


At the center of these communication solutions are the modules and data cards – which need to be robust and reliable enough to support clear and quick communication in times of emergency or disaster.

First Responder Network Solutions with IoT

Given the ample market opportunities for connected devices operating on the first responder cellular network, organizations developing IoT solutions have an attractive reason to break into this market. The mobile network ecosystem has been delivering significant business value to organizations for years. Now, device and application developers can leverage the same technology and expertise to develop new IoT applications for first responders.


By tapping into IoT expertise in the private sector, organizations can develop rugged and reliable IoT-enabled communications devices and applications designed specifically for first responders.

To encourage this innovation, AT&T, the company leading the buildout of the network, announced that they would be allowing individual public safety personnel to sign up for the service at one of 5,300 retail stores across the U.S. These retail stores will also serve as an outlet for first responder network devices like body cams.

Importance of Ruggedness: Developing a Durable Connected Device

From burning buildings to torrential downpours, first responders often find themselves in a variety of rough environments. Just as their gear needs to be able to protect them from the elements, the devices that they use to communicate need to be rugged enough to withstand wind, water, extreme temperatures, and other tough situations.

Even the best network availability cannot make up for functionality issues at the device level. That’s why it is vital for IoT device developers to ensure that the device itself is rugged and robust enough to prevent failure at mission critical moments. To remain effective, IoT devices designed for first responders  need to be able to handle extreme temperatures, rough treatment, exposure to the elements, and other difficult environments.

How to Develop a Durable Device

Most ultra-rugged devices, like those used by military personnel, have heavy-duty outer shells with sealed edges that help protect the device from moisture and water damage, dirt and dust, or other types of infiltration. While touchscreens need to be built tough and fortified against the elements, they should also be glove-friendly for use in the field.


It's not only the outside that counts. When developing IoT devices for first responders, you’ll also need to consider internal ruggedness. The cellular module is vital to establishing a reliable connection, but if it fails in tough external conditions like extreme weather or temperatures, then the entire device fails.

Choose a module manufacturer who is experienced with creating cellular modules and cards designed and tested to work in extreme environments.

The cellular module is vital to establishing a reliable connection, but if it fails in tough external conditions like extreme weather or temperatures, then the entire device fails.

Test Your Rugged Devices

Since lives are often on the line, first responders can’t afford to use devices that fail in the field. Currently, there is no official ruggedness testing as part of the first responder network certification process for new devices. However, it’s essential for IoT device manufacturers to undergo their own in-house ruggedness testing for any devices they create for first responder applications.

Any ruggedness testing you perform in-house should adhere to the MIL-STD-810 performance guidelines.

These have been designed by the military to ensure resiliency and are the gold standard for determining ultra-ruggedness.

The testing process involves observing performance in and response to a variety of rough environmental conditions, including rain, fog, dust, extreme temperatures, low pressure, and more.

First responders need to be assured of a product’s ruggedness given the conditions and situations they often use these devices in. For this reason, any ruggedness testing you undergo is a worthwhile investment. Once you build an effective device that can withstand the elements while maintaining performance, your organization will be quick to find a market for these devices.

Which Module Is Right for Your First Responder Network Application?

When you are designing connected communication devices for the first responder market, you’ll also need to carefully consider what internal components you plan to use.

Test a first responder
network module in your device

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