AT&T flipped the switch on its mobile 5G network in a dozen markets offering up the first competitive response to rival Verizon, which turned on its 5G Home network in October. The AT&T launch also has the carrier sliding in under its self-imposed deadline to launch its standards-based mobile 5G service by year-end.
The AT&T 5G network itself is officially live in those initial launch markets. The carrier said that select “businesses and consumers” in those markets will be able to tap into that network beginning Dec. 21.
Those initial markets include Atlanta; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, Texas; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; and New Orleans. The carrier will expand coverage to seven additional markets during the first half of next year. Those markets include Las Vegas; Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose, California; Nashville; and Orlando, Florida.
Analysts noted that the launch was significant for the 5G ecosystem.
“This is big,” said Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics, of the AT&T launch. “This is real, standards-based 5G with a real 5G device. It’s the first, and it’s the first that matters because it’s the first using a standards-based 5G network.”
The AT&T 5G launch comes on the heels of rival Verizon launching its own 5G service in October. However, Verizon’s current 5G network uses a proprietary specification that was spearheaded by the carrier in an attempt to jumpstart work on 5G standards. Verizon said it will be upgrading its network to the official 5G specification as equipment becomes available.
William Ho, founder and principal analyst at 556 Ventures, said that Verizon might have jumped the standards with its launch, but it has been able to gain valuable insight into usage characteristics. He added that Verizon’s move to use its network initially to support mobile broadband has also allowed it to target AT&T and other broadband providers outside of Verizon’s wired coverage footprint.
Both carriers are relying heavily on millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to support their 5G services. Due to the limited propagation characteristics of that spectrum, both operators are focusing their initial deployments in city centers.
Entner noted that both Verizon and AT&T are gaining important insight into the propagation characteristics of mmWave spectrum in real-world environments.
“Spectrum propagation is still a black art, and no one really knows how it really works in the real world,” Entner said. “Theory and reality are still far apart, and there is only so much you can learn from lab trials.”
Others noted that the limited reach of these early 5G networks also reduces the overall competitive impact.
“The impact is really minimal at present for both Verizon and AT&T since the coverage is very limited,” explained Iain Gillott, president of research and analyst firm iGR, in an email. “Remember that the 5G service is not available throughout the markets they have launched but only in select areas. At this point, launching 5G is really to get the bragging rights unless you happen to live or work in a very few select places.”
Gillott added that while the 5G ecosystem will continue to evolve next year, he said that “the real benefit will not be felt until 2020.”
Unlike Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile US has said its initial mobile 5G service will tap into its 600 MHz spectrum assets that will provide a substantial coverage advantage compared with the mmWave spectrum. T-Mobile US plans to have nationwide mobile 5G coverage in 2020. Entner said that he expects both AT&T and Verizon to provide similar coverage by 2021.
AT&T Network Details
AT&T is relying heavily on its SDN efforts to power its 5G network. This includes its Network Cloud platform, which encompasses the hardware and software that supports all of the carrier’s applications and SDN services; its ECOMP platform that supports the carrier’s physical assets – like routers – to be implemented with software; and the AirShip platform that allows the carrier to manage cloud sites.
Amy Wheelus, vice president of Network Cloud at the carrier, recently told SDxCentral that the carrier has virtualized its 5G core that is now riding on its Network Cloud and being provisioned by Airship. “5G is our first use case,” Wheelus explained.
Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung all scored deals to provide 5G network equipment to AT&T. Ericsson has been a long-time partner of AT&T and helped it build its LTE network. Alcatel-Lucent, which was acquired by Nokia in 2016 for $17 billion, was also a key supplier for AT&T’s LTE network. AT&T’s business, however, was a big win for Samsung, which has been working hard to score 5G deals with U.S. operators. The company is a 5G vendor for Verizon’s network, as is Ericsson. Nokia, meanwhile, is a major 5G vendor for T-Mobile’s network.