FirstNet Build Creates Opportunities and Challenges for Rural Wireless Operators

Nationwide public safety broadband network enables rural operators to evolve their business models

The buildout of FirstNet, a new nationwide public safety broadband network, will enable rural wireless operators to evolve their business model with AT&T from roaming agreements to infrastructure-based models. The shift is expected to provide a more reliable and predictable revenue stream for local wireless operators.

According to a new report from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division, FirstNet represents a near-term opportunity for rural wireless operators, as AT&T is expected to partner with rural operators for fiber backhaul, tower leasing, site acquisition and construction. However, the long-term competitive threat of AT&T entering new rural markets and building out its distribution presence should not be ignored.

“AT&T has a lot of work to do in rural America to meet the FirstNet requirements and to have a network footprint that will enable it to acquire first responder customers,” said Jeff Johnston, a lead economist with CoBank. “It stands to reason that AT&T will want to build out coverage to replace the roaming agreements currently in place. Rural operators will need to convince AT&T that it’s better for it to lease space on existing towers owned by rural operators rather than building its own.”

FirstNet, the First Responders Network Authority, is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Authorized by Congress in 2012, it was established in response to the events of 9/11 and the lack of interoperability between the numerous public safety networks. FirstNet’s mission is to develop, build and operate the nationwide broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities.

In 2017, AT&T was awarded the $6.5 billion FirstNet contract to build and manage the public safety network. The agreement between AT&T and FirstNet is confidential and very little is being shared regarding the build plan. Although it is known that AT&T is required to use rural network operators for 15 percent of the network coverage.

In order to meet the FirstNet coverage mandate, AT&T will be deploying more than 1,000 new towers, many of which will be in rural America. Given that the company has critical network milestones that must be met, it is likely AT&T will partner with existing rural broadband providers for network backhaul.

The short-term impact of FirstNet on rural wireless operators is more predictable than the longer-term competitive impact. Currently, most rural wireless operators consider Verizon as their biggest top-tier competitor, but that could eventually change if AT&T has success with FirstNet and begins to build out its distribution presence in new rural markets.

“AT&T is hungry for growth opportunities and likely sees the infrastructure it’s putting in place for FirstNet and first responders as an opportunity to win business with families of public safety subscribers,” said Johnston. “This ‘land and expand’ strategy could eventually become a threat to rural wireless operators.”

To see a brief video synopsis of the report “FirstNet Brings New Opportunities for Rural Operators, click here. To read the full report, visit cobank.com.

About CoBank

CoBank is a $128 billion cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America. The bank provides loans, leases, export financing and other financial services to agribusinesses and rural power, water and communications providers in all 50 states. The bank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations serving more than 70,000 farmers, ranchers and other rural borrowers in 23 states around the country.

CoBank is a member of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of banks and retail lending associations chartered to support the borrowing needs of U.S. agriculture, rural infrastructure and rural communities. Headquartered outside Denver, Colorado, CoBank serves customers from regional banking centers across the U.S. and also maintains an international representative office in Singapore.

For more information about CoBank, visit the bank's website at cobank.com.

Media Contacts

Jacob Morgan
Corporate Communications Manager, CoBank
303-740-4062
jmorgan@cobank.com

Dave Harding
Charleston|Orwig
262-563-5075
dharding@charlestonorwig.com

*Jeff Johnston is available for interviews with the media on request.