5G and Beyond

AT&T: Prepping for the 5G World

If Tom Keathley has his way, AT&T will lead the charge into the 5G market, accelerating the development of industry tech specifications and beating Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and other carriers to the next-gen wireless frontier.

Keathley, senior vice president of wireless network architecture and design at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), is spearheading the company's design and development of its 5G network and services. Based in Atlanta, he spends much of his time working with teams across the country in Austin, Middletown, NJ and San Ramon, CA, overseeing the various fixed-wireless and mobile technical trials and pilots that the company is conducting to prepare 5G services for prime-time by the end of the decade.

With 5G, AT&T is taking a similar approach to its previous wireless network transformations -- when it upgraded its 2G network to 3G, then upgraded that network to HSPA+ as the first 4G standard and ultimately upgraded its network again to LTE. Company officials say they are laying the foundation for an evolution to 5G today with their deployment of LTE-Advanced technologies, such as carrier aggregation. Their aim is to make it possible for AT&T to become one of the first providers to offer a wireless gigabit capability to customers.

As previously reported, AT&T has successfully completed its first 5G fixed wireless field trial in Austin, offering gigabit-plus data speeds and video streaming and conferencing services to a small group of business customers using millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum and pre-standards 5G technology. In addition, the carrier has been performing system and software architecture lab work in its Middletown, Atlanta and San Ramon facilities. (See AT&T Adds Nokia to 5G Trials.)

In the lab trials thus far, AT&T boasts that it has achieved maximum speeds of 14 Gbit/s using early 5G equipment, with less than three milliseconds of latency. That easily surpasses what the carrier can do with the its current fixed wireless technologies, leaving company executives optimistic that they will be able to offer multi-gigabit speeds to subscribers in the future.

"We've proven that this technology can meet these expectations," Keathley said. "We're pretty pleased with what we're seeing although these are early days and there’s plenty of work to do in making this technology a reality for our customers."

In fact, AT&T officials are pleased enough with their progress that they now plan to launch several more 5G fixed wireless trials in 2017. The list of prospective trials includes a residential video field trial for the company's new DirecTV Now streaming service, as well as other next-gen entertainment services, in the first half of the year. The company also plans to conduct both mobile and fixed wireless trials of the emerging 5G spec with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) in the second half of the year, using mmWave spectrum once again. (See AT&T Lays Out 5G Plans & More for 2017.)

In addition, AT&T is testing or planning to test a number of different wireless frequencies for future 5G services, including 15 GHz in the initial Austin trial, 4 GHz, 28 GHz, 39 GHz and 73 GHz. And it's testing the delivery of services to both single users and multiple users over fixed-wireless and mobile connections.

Of course, it's still early days of the evolution to 5G. AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and other wireless carriers face plenty of challenges in making the technology a reality, including a lack of industry tech standards, heavy, clunky pre-standardized equipment, signal range and propagation concerns, blockage issues and other signal interference problems.

As in the early, pre-standard days of other wireless technologies, for instance, AT&T officials find themselves relying on big, unwieldy devices instead of sleek handsets for their trials and tests, making it tough to deploy them freely. "The devices are not yet in commercial form factor," Keathley said, likening them to small refrigerators in size and heft. "They're not the most convenient things to move around but that will quickly change."

But, most of all, Keathley is focused on the industry's pace of developing 5G standards right now. Although standards work has been furiously underway for some time now and various specs are in development, the 5G standard will likely not be completed until the middle of 2018. While moving this date forward is unlikely, AT&T executives would love to push some key aspects of the specifications up by six months to advance the availability of standards based infrastructure and devices.

"We would like to accelerate the specifications we need to start chipset development," Keathley said. "The sooner the chipsets are available, the faster we’ll have standards-compliant 5G equipment and devices.”

Even if the standards development process is accelerated, though, don't expect 5G to blanket the US any time soon. As with 4G, 3G and their predecessors, it will likely take years for providers to deploy the new technology and for consumers to start buying and using the new 5G-enabled devices en masse. "So it could be 2020 and beyond before its full potential is realized," Keathley said.

This blog is sponsored by AT&T. It is the ninth part of a ten-part series titled "Behind the Speeds," examining next-generation broadband technologies and what it takes to keep customers connected.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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