Post-9/11 public safety network tapped for COVID-19 response

FirstNet, a nationwide public safety channel, has been used frequently during the coronavirus pandemic

Women take a selfie during the coronavirus outbreak on April 17, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Women take a selfie during the coronavirus outbreak on April 17, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 15, 2020 at 6:00am

The nationwide public safety wireless network that Congress created in 2012 because of failures seen during and after the 9/11 attacks is helping connect first-responders and public safety experts across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The law created an independent authority called FirstNet, provided $7 billion for it, and allocated 20 megahertz of bandwidth within the 700 MHz spectrum to create a nationwide interoperable broadband network. The network has been used since then to connect first-responders during natural disasters including wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes. 

Although the law gave states the freedom to choose FirstNet or build their own emergency communications network, all 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia chose to use FirstNet. 

The network, operated by AT&T, connects nearly all urban and rural populations across the country and has been assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency in connecting field hospitals, quarantine locations and testing centers, said Jason Porter, senior vice president of the FirstNet program at AT&T. 

“We are the signal corps for public safety,” Porter said, referring to the military’s communications engineers who set up communications networks ahead of wartime operations. The company has been involved in planning for quarantine sites by providing either a cellphone tower on wheels or a blimp to “make sure they have the connectivity,” he said.

The FirstNet public safety communications network set up after 9/11 has been used more than 50 times in the current pandemic emergency.

 FEMA did not respond to a question seeking comment.

Before the Navy hospital ship Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles to help deal with COVID-19 cases, FirstNet helped set up a land-to-ship circuit by deploying a cellphone tower on wheels, Porter said. 

FirstNet also has teamed up with Centene, a health care provider, to provide high-speed broadband access to primary care physicians in rural areas to expand telehealth services. The pilot project is being rolled out in Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas and Mississippi, Porter said. 

The goal is to provide care for elderly patients and others with preexisting conditions who cannot leave their homes without risking exposure to the pandemic, he said. 

Lessons of 9/11 created FirstNet

FirstNet rose from the failures of the communications network in the aftermath of 9/11 when police, fire and other emergency personnel from all over the country couldn’t communicate with each other because each state, county and city sometimes had its own hardware, software and protocols. Commercial cellphone networks were overwhelmed and emergency personnel sometimes had to use physical couriers to deliver messages to each other. 

First responders who sign up for service through FirstNet get a special chip or SIM card for their mobile phones and devices that routes their calls and messages through the dedicated network, Porter said.

“Our network recognizes that SIM and prioritizes them on our network,” he said. Although working from home, gaming and other uses have increased demand on commercial networks during the coronavirus shutdown, the public safety network was “operating without congestion,” he said. 

[Capitol police must now wear masks when in close proximity to others]

Verizon, one of the largest providers of wireless and internet service, also has been deploying its mobile assets to boost coverage during the pandemic. 

While the company has activated its disaster response teams regionally during previous crisis such as hurricanes or floods, this is the first time Verizon has activated its teams across the country, said Andres Irlando, senior vice president at Verizon and president of the company’s public sector group. 

The company is engaged in about 400 different locations ranging from military bases to emergency testing centers and quarantine sites, Irlando said. 

The company also is helping to fill in the gaps caused by the pandemic — one of which is schools and colleges holding their commencement ceremonies online. 

At the Army’s training center at Fort Jackson, S.C., for example, which is home to the basic training program for enlisted soldiers and holds a graduation almost every week, Verizon has set up a mobile unit to help “transform their graduation from a physical to a virtual event,” Irlando said.