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AT&T’s FirstNet Build Months Ahead of Schedule

Less than a year into the official Band 14 build, AT&T has added more than 50,000+ square miles to the nationwide LTE network footprint of FirstNet. AT&T and FirstNet are months ahead of schedule with already meeting 40 percent of the total rural and urban coverage targets the end of this year. The capacity of the network has been increase by 50 percent since the end of 2017 while simultaneously laying the foundation for a 5G future.

The added LTE coverage is a result of the ongoing network build initiatives to expand and enhance connectivity for consumers and first responders in both urban and rural areas on both indoor and outdoor sites.

Some examples of rural areas that are underway and currently benefitting from the network build include: the Black Hills of South Dakota, where nearly half a million people gather for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the farming communities of Tulare County, California, and tribal lands within the Chickasaw Nation in south-central Oklahoma.

In areas where coverage already exists, FirstNet is making sure first responders have the capacity they need to get the job done without interruption. Now, urban and suburban centers in markets like Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, among others, are getting a Band 14 boost.

In total, AT&T and FirstNet have deployed Band 14 spectrum in more than 500 markets further increasing the platform’s coverage and capacity across the country. The deployment touches 425,000 subscribers, which is a 60 percent increase in the number of subscribers since the end of October 2018, spanning more than 5,250 public safety agencies on FirstNet to date.

5G Bragging Rights? Perhaps, But Not Much Else

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor and IEEE Senior Member

In one of my recent columns I had questioned what the prize would be for being the “first” with 5G. I had noted that being first had no real prize that comes with it, other than, perhaps, bragging rights.

Well, it seems that just happened. The last couple of weeks has been rich in media hype around AT&T’s end of the year launch of their 5G services. According to one media source, on the 21st of December AT&T will become the first telco, in America, to cross the finish line. And win the “prize.” AT&T claims to have a mobile 5G service over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network.

From another media site, outside of wireless, the following was penned “Bragging rights are important. AT&T will now, and until the end of time, be the first mobile 5G network in the United States.” But about all it can do is put that on billboards and in marketing promos. There is nothing attached to it that can be taken to the bank.

In reality, this is a marginal network spanning only 100 MHz channels. It uses the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. It is only available within AT&T’s coverage areas and is a tiny coverage bubble. In AT&T’s own words the “initial launch starts small and will be limited,” but that “customers will see enhancements in coverage, speeds, and devices.”

If you think I am hard on the 5G hype, you should read what Toms Guide, a tech rag that I have read for years, said about it. While they are not in the wireless space, per se, they are a pretty savvy computer technology group. Their headline was “Carrier peddles fake 5G. AT&T Plans to Put 5G Labels On Non-5G Phones.” Well, butter my rump and call me a biscuit. Talk about saying it like it is!

This takes its place along “5G E”, another sleight of hand 5G label, which is being rolled out by them, as well. 5G E leverages 4G LTE advanced capabilities to emulate near 5G with technological upgrades such as carrier aggregation, 4 x 4 MIMO, LAA, and 256-QAM. While these enhancements do improve network performance and meet some of the 5G specs, this platform is not fully 5G.

Furthermore, it seems they taking embellishment to the max in the cities where they are launching 5G service platforms. It is replacing some 4G phones’ on-screen “LTE” indicators with “5G E” logos — a marketing ploy to, further, blur the lines between 4G and 5G service for customers.

This is an interesting approach. One has to beg the question, if 5G E, and similar fake 5G offerings from other carriers, work well, might they be shooting themselves in the foot? What if the end user is happy with this level of performance? Perhaps, when the real 5G is up and running, they may not be all that eager to jump on the platform.

While it MAY be the first “5G” network, it reminds me of my engineering days when we were under pressure to develop something against a set of specs and get it out there, no matter how marginal the product was. This network is simply an experiment that barely meets the 5G designation. To differentiate the service at mmWave, AT&T has added a “+” to the 5G – 5G+ is what it will be designated. That is also where the Netgear 5G Mobile Hotspot will operate.

One can argue that it has to start somewhere. I am all in on that. What I am not all in on is the ridiculous hype that surrounds it. I would have much more respect for these carriers if they came out and said it like it is. In this situation, the AT&T service is, simply, a limited initial 5G jump off service as a first step with no phones. Does that really qualify as a first?

One thing worth mentioning is the pricing philosophy. Unlike what many manufacturers do when they release a new generation or line and use premium pricing, for this network it is approaching it as a loss-leader with realistic up-front pricing. That is the smart approach, considering the unproven benefits for the time being.

For a few months it will be free. Then the buzz is that, in early 2019, list price for the hotspot will be $499. 15 GB of 5G data will cost $70 per month. There is no price yet for phones or other add-on services. Undoubtedly, there will be some uber-geeks, those with more money than sense, and the bragging rights community that will purchase this service. But for the rest of us, it is a “meh.”

What I am hoping now is that, as 2018 draws to a close, the claim of 5G being live has been made and the bragging rights awarded. Whew, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The 2018 claim has been staked. Let us hope 2019 pulls back on the hype, and other the craziness, and we can all get down to the business getting 5G out there, practically and reliably.

Happy new year, everyone! And wishing you all the best for 2019!

AT&T Fiber Now Available in 12 Additional Metros

AT&T has launched fiber networks in a dozen more cities across the United States. In the last year, it added over 3 million locations, reaching more than 10 million locations across 84 metros nationwide where it offers its ultra-fast, low-latency internet service powered by AT&T Fiber. The carrier plans to reach at least 14 million locations by mid-2019.

“We have millions of miles of fiber and this expansion furthers our lead as the largest provider of fiber across the 21 states where we offer home internet service,” the carrier said in a press release.

An ultra-fast internet connection powered by AT&T Fiber lets users quickly access and stream the latest online movies, music and games, so they can telecommute, video-conference, upload and download photos and videos, and connect faster to the cloud. It also lays the groundwork for next generation wireless services.

“The success of mobile 5G relies on a quality fiber connection to the wireless towers or small cells, which then translate the fiber connection into an ultra-fast wireless signal for customers. By putting fiber at the core of our wired and wireless networks, we’ve been laying the foundation for our 5G wireless connectivity,” the carrier said.


Tillman Has Built `Hundreds’ of Towers for AT&T

AT&T is making good on its promise to bypass the established cell tower companies to drive down costs. After signing an agreement with carrier last year, Tillman Infrastructure has built “hundreds” of new macro cell towers for lease with “hundreds” more on the way.

“Our work with Tillman Infrastructure exemplifies our future model for the cell tower industry,” said Susan Johnson, executive vice president– Global Connections and Supply Chain, AT&T. “We’re committed to working with vendors who offer a sustainable cost model while also delivering best in class cycle times and tower construction.”

The Tillman tower build is also part of AT&T’s overall rollout of FirstNet and plan to deploy mobile 5G.

“Tillman is proud of the progress we’ve made with AT&T, in such a short time,” said Bill Hague, CEO of Tillman Infrastructure. “We’re bringing a real alternative to the tower infrastructure space for all mobile operators, with competitive pricing and flexible lease terms that accommodate sustainable growth. We will continue to work aggressively to construct and operate thousands of additional sites, while improving capacity and coverage for the entire country, especially in underserved rural areas.”

Some of the new towers will add coverage for AT&T but others will serve as an “opportunity for AT&T to relocate equipment” from its current towers as the carriers creates a “a diverse community of suppliers and tower companies.”

One tower owner was less than impressed with the AT&T/Tillman announcement, suspecting that more of the towers are in white spaces than over building the big towercos with high-rent relocations.  “Success in the latter will be limited and largely only in areas with limited or no zoning and I still don’t think the big towercos will blink at all,” they said.

Verizon Heralds Beginning of ‘5G Era,’ AT&T Says it Has the Lead

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

We talk a lot about the 5G race with China, South Korea and Japan. But how are the U.S. carriers faring against each other? AT&T and Verizon threw down the gauntlet for next gen deployment right here in the United States during their third quarter earnings calls.

Verizon’s third quarter was highlighted by installations of its proprietary fixed 5G Home wireless service, and the continued enhancement of the fiber and small cells of its 4G LTE network. Verizon’s fixed wireless service successfully trods upon the turf of cablecos using millimeter wave spectrum to provide in-home Internet at wireline broadband speeds and capacity.

“The initial launch of 5G Home in four markets will lead to a larger rollout in 2019,” said Matthew Ellis, Verizon executive vice president and chief financial officer. “We are gaining valuable insights ahead of the industry that will drive refinements to the customer experience prior to the arrival of global standards-based equipment.”

While 5G is the buzz — the term was used 40 times according to the Seeking Alpha earnings call transcript while LTE was uttered twice — Verizon noted the importance of LTE to the near future. “Our 4G LTE network will continue to be a foundation of our services for many years to come,” Ellis said.

During the quarter, Verizon completed an end-to-end global standards compliant call with a smartphone test device using its network in Minneapolis. “We have said all along that we intend to be first not only in launching the world’s initial 5G commercial product but also the first to deliver true 5G mobility to consumers,” Ellis said.

Ellis said Verizon has been preparing its network for 5G through the deployment of fiber resources, small cells, spectrum and mobile edge computing capabilities. Year-to-date capital spending of $12.0 billion was up from $11.3 billion YTD last year. Capital expenditure for the full year is expected to be between $16.6 billion and $17.0 billion.

“As soon as devices and equipment are available the deployment of our 5G network on the global standard will begin for mobility and residential broadband in the new 5G ultra-wideband era,” Ellis said, “At Verizon, we believe that true 5G requires an ultra-wideband solution, utilizing millimeter wave spectrum to address the full array of use cases that 5G enables.”

In late October, Verizon committed $25 million to build a “technologically advanced wireless network” in the Florida Panhandle as it struggles to recover from Hurricane Michael.  5G technology will be a part of that infrastructure, and Panama City will become one of five announced Verizon 5G cities, joining Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and Sacramento.

AT&T building on ‘our lead in 5G’

However, AT&T believes it has the lead in 5G, John M. Donovan, CEO AT&T Communications said during the carrier’s Q3 earnings call, and it will be introducing standards-based mobile 5G services in the next few weeks and in parts of a dozen cities by the end of the year. Additionally, the 5G mobile will be deployed in seven more cities in early 2019.

Donovan said the foundation has been put into place by 5G trials that were completed in several cities and the deployment of a fiber network, which will pass 14 million consumers and eight million businesses by mid-2019.

AT&T’s 5G Evolution will be in more than 400 markets by the end of the year with nationwide coverage by mid-2019 and theoretical peak speeds reaching 400 megabits per second. AT&T also plans to launch LTE Licensed Assisted Access in parts of 24 cities by the end of the year, which will be transitioned to 5G and can deliver faster speeds than LTE.

AT&T still plans to use a one-touch tower deployment solution, which combines FirstNet climbs to deploy Band 14 with other spectrum additions, 700 MHz, AWS-3, and WCS on radios that can be upgraded to 5G through a software change.

“We’re climbing towers and adding spectrum all at once. We’re also adding new radio capability, which will enable us to upgrade the tower to 5G, without another tower climb,” Donovan said. “Thanks in part to our FirstNet build, our fallow spectrum is being put into service at a rapid rate. We’re on track to increase the amount of spectrum deployed by nearly 50 percent. This is having a dramatic positive impact on our network.”

So who is leading the “race” to 5G? Joe Madden, Mobile Experts, said comparing AT&T and Verizon is a bit of an apples and oranges situation.

“Verizon is the first to deploy a high-capacity radio network, but the Verizon system does not use the 5G NR format.  Instead, Verizon has chosen a proprietary format for fixed wireless access which is not compatible with 5G NR,” Madden said. “AT&T is deploying their first 5G commercial networks later than Verizon, but the AT&T network is compatible with 5G NR.  “In my opinion, the AT&T approach is “ahead” of Verizon because they are in a better position to support mobile 5G with their network.

T-Mobile, Too

Last February, T-Mobile announced its plan to build out 5G in 30 cities nationwide using its 600 MHz and 28 GHz spectrum by the end of the year. The carrier followed with a multi-year, $3.5 billion contract with Nokia in July to deploy a nationwide network with end-to-end 3GPP 5G New Radio (NR) technology, software and services. In September, another contract was signed for 3GPP-compliant 5G NR equipment with Ericsson, also worth $3.5 billion.

“5G will be amazing, and we can’t even imagine all the cool stuff it will bring, just like with our earlier network innovations. That’s why truly mobile 5G has to be nationwide — period, the end,” said T-Mobile CEO John Legere.

T-Mobile expects to deploy 5G in its low-band 600 MHz spectrum across its existing nationwide macro network. “Nationwide Mobile 5G will require both high-band AND broad low-band coverage, and having unused nationwide 600 MHz spectrum means T-Mobile is in an ideal position to deliver,” T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said.

5G Dual-mode Radios for Sprint, Courtesy of Nokia

Sprint’s Massive MIMO technology is capable of delivering up to 10 times the capacity of current LTE systems and delivering a 5G solution when it deploys the technology next year. This year, Sprint began deploying its Massive MIMO technology in several cities, including Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York where the company plans to launch mobile 5G service starting in the first half of 2019.

Next year, dual-mode radios may usher in the era of 5G wireless communications for Sprint customers. At Mobile World Congress Americas, last Spring, Nokia and Sprint demonstrated a 5G NR connection that used a dual-mode-capable radio and a massive MIMO antenna. The antenna is designed to achieve as much as 3 Gbps peak downlink throughput for a single sector over 5G and LTE simultaneously using Sprint’s radio-frequency (RF) spectrum.

Sprint’s chief technology officer, John Saw, said the company has enough (RF) spectrum to operate LTE and 5G simultaneously on the same radios. Sprint’s extensive spectrum acquisitions at FCC auctions seem to be paying off.