T-Mobile is adding a key feature for its first responder program – preemption for certain qualified agencies – as well as new devices and 5G plans.

T-Mobile moved to get its foot in the public safety door with the launch of its “Connecting Heroes” offer in May 2020. Plans for a 10-year commitment to offer free service and 5G access with unlimited voice and data to first responders across the country were initially announced back in 2019. That came about while T-Mobile was still working to gain approval for its merger with Sprint.  

At the time T-Mobile said first responders would have preemption, no data caps, no throttling or deprioritization.

On Thursday, details were a bit scarce, but T-Mobile said preemption has been added alongside priority network access for first responder agencies enrolled in Wireless Priority Service (WPS). Priority access means that first responders “get to the front of the line” as T-Mobile put it, ahead of typical consumer traffic. Preemption, meanwhile, is important in that if the network gets congested in an emergency, non-emergency traffic is moved aside to clear up the network for critical communications.

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T-Mobile says first responder plans including free service and a $15 option are available to all public and non-profit state and local, 911, police and EMS departments – but it wasn’t immediately clear if agencies need to be enrolled in WPS for preemption. Fierce reached out for more details and will update with any additional information.

The Department of Homeland Security determines WPS eligibility, which is available for federal, state and local governments and public services or welfare organizations. It’s meant to be used in an emergency or crisis situation when the wireless network is congested for authorized public safety and others to get priority in the call queue on all nationwide and some regional cellular networks. WPS calls don’t preempt calls in progress or override general consumer’s use of the network, according to the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). It also doesn’t apply to SMS or data. CSIA says WPS is widely available from other carriers including AT&T, C Spire, GCI, UScellular and Verizon.

New rugged devices and paid plans from T-Mobile are also in the mix for first responders. Devices include an MG90 5G rugged vehicle router from Sierra Wireless, as well as two Cat phones (Cat S62 and a rugged Cat flip phone) coming this summer. Three new paid plans (in addition to a current $15 option) are coming later this month, but pricing wasn’t disclosed and a T-Mobile spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to questions from Fierce. The announcement did say plans would include unlimited talk, text and data, as well as hotspot and a Samsung 5G phone at no additional cost.

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“We launched Connecting Heroes last year so that first responders would no longer have to choose between funding life-saving equipment or wireless communication. At T-Mobile, first responder calls get through first and that could make the difference in an emergency when making life-saving decisions,” said Mike Katz, EVP of T-Mobile for Business, in a statement. “First responders risk it all for us, and we feel it’s our duty to support them with our incredible service at the lowest cost — even free.”

T-Mobile has estimated the program could put up to $7 billion back into public safety budgets over 10 years. And the operator was also sure to call out its high-capacity 5G network with mid-band 2.5 GHz and broad coverage using low-band 600 MHz spectrum. It noted 5G service covers 92% of Interstate Highway miles in the U.S., compared to 68% for AT&T and 51% for Verizon, according to Ookla data.

Still, when it comes to the public safety segment, T-Mobile is working to gain ground where historically it’s been largely absent compared to competitors AT&T and Verizon.

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AT&T has made significant moves since securing its FirstNet contract, as part of a public-private partnership to create a dedicated public safety network. FirstNet now covers 2.71 million square miles and AT&T is more than 90% complete with its deployment of Band 14 spectrum, allocated for first responders on FirstNet. At the end of the first quarter, AT&T had more than 16,000 agencies signed on and 2.2 million FirstNet connections.

AT&T often touts priority and preemption for FirstNet as a foundation of the network. Public safety and FirstNet advocate Andrew Seybold previously noted the importance to meeting public safety community needs.

“Without priority and preemption, public safety is not guaranteed access to the network when it is being heavily used by commercial users. FirstNet is a separate network with a separate core and FirstNet users do not compete with commercial users on Band 14,” he wrote.

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