Verizon on Wednesday announced plans to build a dedicated network core for first responders, boosting its efforts in the public safety sector and setting the stage for a fight with FirstNet contractor AT&T.

The carrier said it will build and operate its own private network core for public safety communications, and will offer priority access and preemption to first responders for free whenever necessary. Verizon also said it will invest in new “mission-critical 4G LTE voice communications” that will complement existing offerings like Push-to-Talk Plus.

Verizon indicated the move comes at the behest of public safety agencies.

“We're making the investments necessary to give public safety access to the best possible network coverage, reliability, and capability, when and where they need it," Verizon's Public Sector SVP Michael Maiorana commented. "Our public safety network will provide a comprehensive and cost-effective solution for public safety, and we'll continue working to offer first responders the network reliability and access to innovative services they need to keep our communities safe."

Verizon stressed it considers the network core solution to be a complement to FirstNet rather than an alternative, noting that it will simply give first responders additional choice. Use of the carrier's network solution won't require states to opt-out of AT&T's FirstNet build, and Verizon said it's planning to fund the project itself.

"We compete with AT&T every day, but we don't consider ourselves in competition with FirstNet," a Verizon spokesman noted.

Still, the move appears to be setting up a fight between Verizon and AT&T for public safety users since Verizon indicated it will offer multi-band devices that provide Band 14 access and enable full interoperability with Band 14 radio access networks deployed by FirstNet.

It seems an interesting shift for a company that declined to bid during FirstNet's RFP process.

A Verizon spokesman confirmed the carrier did not submit a proposal.

“The way the FirstNet RFP was structured was essentially as a spectrum deal: a commercial partner would agree to build and operate a public safety network in exchange for the spectrum that was being made available. Verizon didn't bid because we weren't interested in commercializing FirstNet's spectrum, and we simply didn't have a need for it on a nationwide basis,” the spokesman explained.

Verizon's spokesman insisted the plan announced Wednesday isn't a change of strategy, but marks a continuation of the carrier's longstanding support for emergency responders.

“Nothing has changed regarding our support of public safety,” the spokesman said. “Building our own public safety network core is just another example of that commitment and of the value proposition we bring to our public safety customers.”

As Wireless Week reported last week, Verizon said in a recent filing with the FCC that it plans to “provide reliable and innovative public safety communications services to state and local governments irrespective of whether states choose to opt out of the FirstNet network.” And in recent months, the carrier has launched a campaign highlighting its work with public safety officials across the country to draw in customers.

Last month, Verizon pointed out it was lending communications support to more than 8,000 firefighters and first responders battling fires in several western U.S. states. In particular, Verizon noted its use of satellite communications technology in remote areas of California, Cell-on-Wheels deployments in Utah, and network repeaters in Arizona.

However, an AT&T spokesman on Wednesday offered the following statement:

"What we’re offering to public safety through our private-public partnership will exceed anything they’ve previously been offered in the marketplace. FirstNet is bringing public safety a superior network and ecosystem with specialized features, including increased coverage and capacity along with priority and preemption, so first responder subscribers can be confident that the network will be there when and where they need it – 24/7/365, like their mission.”

As of Wednesday, 14 states and territories had opted-in to AT&T's FirstNet build, with Arizona and Kansas submitting their decisions earlier this week.