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AT&T’s New Nationwide, Mobile 5G Timeline

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. 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.

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., 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. 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 percent since 2017.
  • AT&T said it now covers 40 percent 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 percent of its core network is now virtualized.
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