Unscrambling AT&T's fixed wireless strategy

AT&T is no stranger to fixed wireless.

After all, the operator already uses LTE technology and CBRS spectrum to cover more than 1 million rural locations with fixed wireless services, starting at around $60 per month.

The carrier also recently announced "the first, true nationwide business-focused broadband network with fixed wireless 5G connectivity" for its business customers.

And that's why the company's recent commentary around fixed wireless technology is so confusing.

"In the next four to five years, you're going to see some of our [home broadband] customers consume about 4 terabytes of data a month," said Igal Elbaz, AT&T's senior VP of wireless and access technology, at a recent investor event. Elbaz explained that a number of trends – the transition from 4K video to 8K video, the rise of augmented reality and robotic assistants for the elderly, to name a few – are creating huge data demands on home broadband connections. "The amount of innovation that can show up in the home is huge. And for all of those reasons we just don't believe that a wireless-only system can address all of that demand and traffic patterns," he said.

Instead, Elbaz said AT&T believes in a "hybrid fixed and wireless network approach."

"It may make sense for us to lay fiber to that location because that will always be the best solution to address what I just mentioned. And if not, then we can always offer those fixed wireless solutions," he explained. For example, he said AT&T might use fixed wireless technologies in rural areas to offer speedier services to its existing DSL customers, or for enterprise customers not connected to its fiber network.

"Fixed wireless has its own place in the overall way of how to serve customers. That's going to be part of our play," he said. "But we really think that whenever we can come with fiber for a customer, it's always going to be better. But our hybrid approach probably is the right way forward."

Elbaz didn't mention T-Mobile or Verizon, but both companies have relatively mature fixed wireless offerings. The operators are planning to deploy the technology across millions of households in rural and urban areas where they believe their wireless networks have enough capacity to handle the home broadband load.

For Verizon specifically, the operator is using fixed wireless to expand into locations where its fiber Fios network can't reach – just like AT&T. The difference though is that AT&T does not have a dedicated fixed wireless business or a fleshed out consumer offering, nor does it have (to those of us watching from the outside) any quantifiable fixed wireless deployment targets or revenue goals.

Instead, AT&T plans to use fixed wireless some of the time, in some locations, where it thinks the technology might make sense. Except in locations where customers are using a lot of data. Which apparently is not everywhere. And somehow AT&T will be able to figure all this out before actually serving those customers.

Make sense?

What's probably going on here is a confluence of factors. First, AT&T has been busy with its WarnerMedia adventure into Hollywood during the past few years – a time Verizon and T-Mobile used to conduct extensive fixed wireless tests. That decision left AT&T with an experience deficit in fixed wireless. Moreover, AT&T now owns the least amount of spectrum among the big US mobile providers, both in terms of spectrum below 6GHz and spectrum above 6GHz. Overall network capacity is directly contingent on spectrum, so AT&T might not have the network capacity necessary to follow T-Mobile and Verizon into the fixed wireless game on a broad scale. Finally, AT&T recently announced a plan to significantly expand its fiber network to up to 30 million locations by 2025 – that new effort might seem unwise if AT&T were to tell investors that fixed wireless technologies were comparable to fiber.

Thus, AT&T executives have been left to struggle through a balancing act that involves defending the operator's existing and future fixed wireless offerings while touting the benefits of a big fiber investment.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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