AT&T put a stake in the ground with plans to offer nationwide mobile 5G services by "early" next year. However, the company added a significant caveat: The service will run on its "lower band spectrum (sub-6GHz)."
Nonetheless, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s pledge puts the company into direct competition with T-Mobile US Inc. , which has said that it too will offer nationwide 5G services by 2020. T-Mobile hasn't yet provided any guidance about when exactly it will reach its goal next year, potentially setting the stage for AT&T to claim the "nationwide" mobile 5G title with an "early" 2020 rollout before T-Mobile reaches its own coverage goal.
AT&T late last year launched mobile 5G service in parts of 12 cities. However, that service runs on AT&T's 39GHz millimeter-wave spectrum. The type of spectrum that AT&T is using is important because transmissions in the millimeter-wave spectrum (generally considered spectrum above 20GHz) typically can handle massive amounts of data but can't propagate very far. Meaning, millimeter-wave signals can only reach a few thousand feet, whereas the low- and mid-band spectrum traditionally used by cellular networks can reach several miles or more. Further, millimeter-wave spectrum transmissions often have significant difficulties penetrations buildings and other objects.
Thus, AT&T's "sub-6GHz" stipulation makes sense, considering it's much easier to deploy such spectrum across large geographic areas. On the other hand, the speeds and capacity available through sub-6GHz spectrum likely will be much lower than the speeds available through millimeter-wave transmissions (though there are a variety of other circumstances -- including the distance between a user and a transmission tower -- can also affect speeds and capacity).
AT&T's revelation that it will use sub-6GHz spectrum for its nationwide 5G offering aligns the carrier much more closely to T-Mobile's 5G plans. T-Mobile plans to use its 600MHz spectrum for its own nationwide 5G buildout. Such a low-band spectrum is ideal for long-range transmissions.
AT&T didn't specify exactly what kind of sub-6GHz spectrum it might use for its 5G effort, but the carrier owns spectrum in bands ranging from 700MHz to 2.3GHz. AT&T did hint last year that it might use other spectrum bands for 5G aside from its millimeter-wave spectrum. (See AT&T: We're Not Only Focused on mmWave for 5G.)
To be clear, AT&T did say that it would also continue to expand its millimeter-wave mobile 5G service too, though the company didn't provide any details. Last year AT&T said it would expand its 5G service into a total of 19 cities early in 2019.
Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), for its part, hasn't outlined its mobile 5G launch plans, including what spectrum it might use or when it might offer 5G nationwide. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) has said it will launch mobile 5G services in nine cities in the first half of this year using its 2.5GHz spectrum.
News of AT&T's nationwide 5G launch plans was contained in a wide-ranging update on the company's network efforts and business strategies. Other noteworthy updates from the company include:
- AT&T will expand its deal with Magic Leap -- a company building augmented reality goggles -- to include business solutions in addition to consumer offerings.
- AT&T said that, by the end of this year, it expects its network capacity to increase by 50% since 2017.
- AT&T said it now covers 40% of its FirstNet network coverage targets.
- AT&T said it would reach 880,000 locations with its fixed wireless Internet service by the end of this year, and 1.1 million locations by the end of 2020, in 18 states.
- AT&T said 65% of its core network is now virtualized.
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading