AT&T’s President of Operations Scott Mair said this week that he has three priorities: the company’s FirstNet emergency responder network; its network upgrade to 5G; and the carrier’s ongoing fiber build. But luckily, the FirstNet build-out is actually helping with the 5G build-out.
Speaking at the Barclays Global Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Broker Conference yesterday, Mair said, “So the beautiful thing around FirstNet is: it’s really a reason to go touch the towers. And as we’re touching the towers, we’re implementing what we call our 5G Evolution program. And what that means is when we touch a tower, we’re actually upgrading that tower.”
The capabilities that AT&T is putting at the towers are carrier aggregation, improved modulation techniques, and 4×4 MIMO. “Those towers will support 400 Mb/s peak speeds,” said Mair, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. “And I always like to say, kind of rule of thumb, 10 percent to 20 percent of that is what an average customer will see, so 40 to 80 Mb/s is the experience.”
The company plans to have these tower upgrades complete in 400 markets by the end of this year, covering over 175 million people. And it expects this to be nationwide by the middle of 2019.
Part of “touching the towers” is to deploy radios that are 5G upgradable with software. “We’ve been doing that through much of ’18,” said Mair. “It’s an entrée into the next generation of technology.” He said the company in 2017 started deploying hardware that could later be updated with 5G software.
By the end of this year AT&T plans to launch commercial 5G in parts of 12 cities, and it plans to be in 19 cities in the first half of 2019. The first 5G device will be a MiFi product. “It’s the Netgear Nighthawk 5G mobile hotspot,” said Mair. “That will be an entry device. And the device ecosystem is really what drives adoption, obviously.”
Mair also spoke briefly about AT&T’s efforts with SDN: “We said we’ll have 75 percent of our network virtualized by the end of 2020, and we’ll make that. We started at the customer edge, and we’re finishing — we’re focused on the core. The next great opportunity is the radio access network space. The evolution of 5G networks are really edge compute-based. They’re also software-defined-based. And so the next two or three years we’re going to see roadmaps that then also virtualize one of the areas that was later in the roadmap, in the wireless access space.”