New FirstNet cell tower boosts communications for first responders


RAPID CITY, S.D. – AT&T has completed a new FirstNet cell site near Nemo giving first responders in Pennington County a boost in high-speed wireless communications coverage.

In 2017, the state of South Dakota approved the establishment of FirstNet a public safety broadband network in the state. FirstNet is the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for first responders and the public safety community. It gives first responders first priority over other cell users not only in a crisis but also in daily operations.

Sequence 0100 00 25 17still001FirstNets creation stemmed from the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which revealed fundamental problems with communication systems used by our nation’s first responders. Radios relied on by police, fire, and paramedics did not easily operate across different agencies. Land and mobile phone lines were overwhelmed by a high volume of calls. First responders struggled to communicate with each other. In 2012, Congress mandated FirstNet to cover 97 percent of the county in five years under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.

The FCC estimates that over 10,000 lives could be saved each year if public safety were able to reach callers just 1 minute faster. The FirstNet platform is built with AT&T in a public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) – an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). FirstNet offers services to more than 19,500 agencies and organizations – accounting for more than 3 million public safety dedicated connections nationwide.

The new tower near Nemo and Rolling Hills Road is one of four new cell sites that have been added in and around Rapid City since the FirstNet contract was awarded to AT&T by the federal government in late 2017. It was built in response to the bridge collapse on Nemo Road on July 1, 2020, where first responders could not communicate due to a lack of cell coverage.

“We’ve invested over $100 million in the last three years in South Dakota. And what we did is we got input from many public safety agencies throughout the state. Where do you need connectivity? And that’s where we tried to build these sites,” said Cheryl Riley, President of the Northern Plains States for AT&T. “We know that this particular site is going to be an extremely critical site, and we know that this area is difficult to cover. And so we’re really concentrating a lot of our effort through the FirstNet builds on this particular area of the state.”

AT&T has added Band 14 to more than 90 percent of all of their cell sites in Pennington County. Band 14 is a nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. In an emergency, this band can be cleared and locked just for first responders. Only those on FirstNet will be able to access Band 14 spectrum, further elevating their connected experience in an emergency response.

Direct feedback from public safety and local stakeholders has been instrumental in deploying Band 14 spectrum across South Dakota and it’s helped to launch new purpose-built FirstNet sites in rural and remote areas where emergency responses have been previously challenged. Residents, visitors, and businesses can take advantage of AT&T commercial spectrum bands, as well as Band 14 when capacity is available.

Jerome Harvey, Pennington County Fire Administrator said that there is still a digital divide in the extreme western part of Pennington County as well as north of Wall.

“Any time that you can get additional coverage, especially in a rural areas from our major carriers, that’s a good thing. Not only for the public to be able to reach out for help but also for us as  firefighters and other emergency personnel to be able to communicate back to them and with each other,” he said. “This new site is important to our firefighting and rescue efforts in west central Pennington County. It will help firefighters communicate, coordinate and, potentially save lives when seconds count.”

“We hope that the South Dakota PUC and our major carriers will pay attention to areas such as the Conata Basin, which is lacking in coverage now,” said Harvey.

No matter where you are in the state no connection is more important than one that could help save a life.

Categories: Local News, South Dakota News