AT&T falls behind Verizon in mmWave race

Almost exactly two years ago, AT&T loudly trumpeted that it was the "first and only company in the US" to launch mobile 5G services in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.

Now, however, the company has little to show for its efforts. It does not offer a coverage map of its mmWave network, it hasn't disclosed any statistics on the number of mmWave sites it operates, and it now offers mmWave services in about half the number of cities that Verizon does.

Moreover, AT&T officials don't appear to have any ambition to expand the company's mmWave coverage footprint in the way that Verizon does.

"For the most part, it's enterprise use cases and what I would call venue-specific use cases that we're using it [mmWave] for at this point," said Scott Mair, AT&T's president of technology and operations and one of the operator's top 5G executives, during a recent investor event.

Further, Mair acknowledged that AT&T is mostly focusing on transmitting 5G signals in its lowband spectrum holdings.

"That's the way you're going to get coverage," he said of AT&T's lowband 5G network. "The mmWave provides unique characteristics in terms of bandwidth and speed, and that's going to play a part. But mmWave and the propagation properties of that – take your pick, anywhere from 200 to 300 to 350 yards – it's really not going to fulfill a coverage layer."

He continued: "So 5G in terms of coverage, when you get 5G on your phone, it's really going to come from the more traditional side of the wireless network."

AT&T's position on mmWave stands in stark contrast to that of Verizon, which has made its own mmWave network a centerpiece of its overall 5G strategy. And Verizon appears to be pulling ahead of AT&T on the topic, based on the small number of public statistics available from the two companies:

  • Verizon said it remains on track to launch mmWave services in parts of 60 US cities this year (AT&T mostly halted its mmWave network buildout at around 35 cities at the end of 2019). Verizon is also touting mmWave coverage in a number of indoor and outdoor downtown areas.
  • Verizon officials have boasted that they deployed the same number of basestations during the third quarter of this year as they did during all of 2019 (though company officials have not provided specific figures for the effort).
  • Verizon's coverage map offers a very clear and street-level view of its mmWave coverage area (dubbed "ultra wideband") whereas AT&T simply offers a generic 5G coverage map that doesn't make any mention of the fact that AT&T brands its mmWave service as "5G+."

And underscoring Verizon's full-throated embrace of mmWave was CEO Hans Vestberg's starring role in the introduction of Apple's new iPhone 12, which supports 5G in mmWave bands. AT&T – the company that supported the first iPhone – was nowhere to be seen.

To be clear, AT&T's Mair said that mmWave 5G will have a role in AT&T's network. Indeed, the operator has spent several billion dollars amassing mmWave spectrum licenses around the country.

Mair added that AT&T is installing the technology in entertainment districts, stadiums, hospitals, manufacturing facilities and other such locations. "In those areas, the economics work really well – dense traffic, specific use cases," he said. (It's worth noting that AT&T also has not disclosed any substantial plans around offering fixed wireless services over 5G – both T-Mobile and Verizon have ambitious plans for such offerings.)

Mair added that mmWave 5G networks operate in a much different way than traditional lowband wireless networks. Instead of managing a number of independent cell sites, mmWave networks use a hub and node design where each mmWave transmission site is coordinated through a central processing function. As a result, assembling networking elements like permits, power and backhaul can become more challenging.

"All of those things play into the deployment of mmWave that are different than just a cell site," he said. But he said that AT&T's mmWave deployment volumes "are coming along very nicely."

However, Mair didn't provide any specifics, and AT&T has made no indication that it plans to expand its mmWave services into additional cities.

Perhaps that comes as little surprise. After all, Verizon's CEO previously led one of the world's largest wireless network equipment vendors, while AT&T's new CEO is in the midst of upending the movie theater business with the release of the new Wonder Woman movie.

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

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