AT&T Expects 5G in Late 2018 or Early '19
An AT&T executive said Thursday morning that he expects that the operator will be able to start deploying a standards-based 5G network late in 2018 or 2019.
Speaking at the Wells Fargo Securities 5G Forum, Scott Mair, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s senior vice president of technology, planning and engineering, said that its initial 5G will arrive "probably late '18, or the early part of '19."
Mair says that AT&T is now drive-testing 5G with download speeds of 5 to 7 Gbit/s in Austin and beyond. Commercially, this should translate into a next-generation wireless network that will download a full movie over the air in seconds.
AT&T plans to base its initial network on the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Phase I 5G specification, which covers fixed and mobile broadband uses. "Phase I standards will be out as early as June '18." Mair said.
The 3GPP is expected to have the standalone 5G New Radio specification ready by the end of this year. This is so that chip and hardware vendors can start to develop products as soon as possible. (See 3GPP Plans Early Mobile 5G Spec for December 2017 and 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
"That's the long pole in the tent," Mair said.
Finally, Phase II standards are expected by the end of 2019. These will cover "massive IoT," as well as augmented and virtual reality, the AT&T man said.
For its next 5G tests in Austin, Mair says that AT&T is going to test the performance of 5G with streaming, multiple users and enterprises. These results will be sent to the 3GPP to feed back into the eventual specification.
Mair claims that AT&T is "the largest contributor" to the 3GPP spec "in the US."
One of the expected backbones of 5G is millimeter wave spectrum -- 28GHz and 39GHz in the US -- using frequencies much higher than spectrum currently used for cellular networks. Mair said that with "nearly 400MHz" of mmWave spectrum from its FiberTower acquisition, "we have what we need to get into the 5G game," despite recently losing out to Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) in a bidding war for Straight Path Communications Inc. 's spectrum. (See Verizon Buys Straight Path for $3.1B, Beating AT&T to 5G Spectrum.)
The switch to 5G doesn't mean that 4G LTE is going away in, say, the next decade or even more. This is because initial 5G mmWaves will likely to be deployed in little pockets -- "hotzones," as operators often call them -- and 5G smartphones maintain a constant 4G connection for voice calls and data coverage out of 5G network range.
"It's going to backstop the 5G network... it's not going anywhere fast," Mair said.
To that end, AT&T now has two of its "5G Evolution" markets -- read: upgraded LTE networks -- running in Austin and Indianapolis. Mair said unlicensed spectrum and four-carrier aggregation will be added later this year.
Mair says that this will get AT&T close to "peak theoretical" speeds of 1 Gbit/s on LTE. He says that users will see this as 100Mbit/s to 200Mbit/s downloads on the commercial network.
"That's still blazing fast," on a smartphone, Mair said.
AT&T still has 60MHz of "fallow spectrum" that it can devote to LTE as well. Mair says that AT&T plans to deploy AWS-3 and WCS spectrum at the same time that it rolls out the 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum for the FirstNet public safety network. (See FirstNet Unveils State Plans as 4G Safety Network Goes Ahead and Buy American: Will It Affect the Telecom Sector?)
"So, when you touch the tower, you're not just touching it for FirstNet, you're touching it for other spectrum too," Mair said.
States in the US have until mid-December to decide whether they want to opt into AT&T's FirstNet program. If they decide not to, they have 180 days to create a plan for their own public safety networks. The plans would have to be approved by the FCC, and the networks would have to interoperate with AT&T's FirstNet core network.
States can decide to opt in or out before the December deadline. In that case, Mair said that the multiple spectrum deployments could start before the end of the year.
— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading