AT&T Exec Hints That '5G Evolution' Is Faster Than T-Mobile's 5G

Mike Dano
12/12/2019

A top executive at AT&T reiterated his support for the operator's decision to rebrand LTE as "5G Evolution," and hinted that forthcoming tests will show that the operator's "5G E" network provides faster speeds than T-Mobile's recently launched 5G network.

"We took some pretty healthy inbounds and attacks from competitors like T-Mobile about our 5G Evolution branding," AT&T's Jeff McElfresh said today at an investor event, acknowledging the widespread criticism AT&T received due to its decision at the end of 2018 to replace the LTE icon on many of its phones with the "5G E" icon. "And I think tests here pretty soon will show just how fast and how solid our 5G Evolution network is relative to their most recent nationwide launch."

McElfresh is likely referring to pending testing results from Speedtest company Ookla, which releases quarterly reports on average nationwide network performance by the big US wireless providers. Although T-Mobile for years held the top spot in Ookla's rankings -- a situation that T-Mobile executives often boasted of -- AT&T knocked T-Mobile from its top spot earlier this year. Ookla cited AT&T's deployment of additional spectrum and newer network technologies for the rise in AT&T's network speeds; AT&T branded those upgrades as "5G Evolution" despite the fact that they don't involve the official, 3GPP-approved 5G NR transmission standard.

Now, though, AT&T is facing a new offering from T-Mobile: 5G in T-Mobile's 600MHz spectrum. T-Mobile launched the new service across 200 million people last week via two phones. However, T-Mobile warned customers and reviewers to expect only a 20% speed bump on its new 5G network when compared with its LTE network.

That does indeed position AT&T's "5G E" network to outpace T-Mobile's 5G network in terms of speed. For example, Cnet reviewers in New York City recorded T-Mobile's new 5G network providing average speeds of between 20Mbit/s and 50Mbit/s. In a report released this summer, Ookla found that AT&T's "5G E" services working on the Samsung Galaxy S10+ provided average speeds of 48Mbit/s.

"In the 5G realm, there's been a lot of hype and a lot of snark," McElfresh said today, referring to criticism from T-Mobile and others. "Our 5G Evolution network is actually the fastest network in the US, and it remains the fastest network today, regardless of any recent network launch."

Into the weeds
To be clear, users' download speeds can vary wildly based on what kind of device they're using, how much spectrum their operator is using in a given area, what kinds of network technologies are involved, and how physically close users are to a cell tower, among many other factors. Thus, it's difficult to conduct apples-to-apples comparisons.

That said, it's clear that, given the proper conditions, AT&T's "5G E" connections could outpace T-Mobile's 5G service on its 600MHz spectrum.

And, adding further complexity to the issue: 5G transmissions on millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum are a completely different story, considering both AT&T and T-Mobile have recorded download speeds around 500Mbit/s and above. However, both operators' mmWave 5G networks are confined to a few neighborhoods in a handful of downtown areas.

Finally, in his comments today, McElfresh reiterated AT&T's plans to begin introducing 5G NR services on its lowband spectrum holdings, starting with 850MHz. He said that effort would start soon and will continue through to the middle of next year. Importantly, AT&T executives have previously warned that AT&T's lowband 5G will only offer "marginal differences" from 4G in terms of speeds.

AT&T's move to the cloud
McElfresh also provided some commentary on AT&T's recent cloud deals with IBM and Microsoft. He said the agreements reflect the operator's new "public cloud first policy" and that they represent "a big move for AT&T."

"We made a decision earlier this year that -- to accelerate our cost curves, faster than what we could ordinarily mine out of doing things faster, leaner, quicker -- we're going to have to leverage the public cloud to migrate many of our workloads that serve our legacy telco and our wireless operations," he explained.

He said that, instead of using its own, on-premise cloud, AT&T decided to move its enterprise-focused backoffice operations onto IBM's cloud and its consumer-focused backoffice operations onto Microsoft's Azure cloud.

And, McElfresh said, those efforts will likely play into AT&T's initial steps into edge computing for 5G.

"As you walk through the motions and the technology that you have to integrate in order to lift and shift those applications to the public cloud, invariably there are opportunities that you bump into of, how you can extend the webscale public cloud out closer to the edge with a network partner like an AT&T," he said. "So look to see us continue to drive innovation with multi-access edge compute and network edge compute with IBM and Microsoft as we roll out our 5G network."

McElfresh's comments are noteworthy in light of Verizon's recent agreement with Amazon AWS for edge computing for 5G.

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

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