Meanwhile, AT&T will continue to make significant investments in deploying LTE technology through its FirstNet, small-cell and fiber initiatives to establish the dense networks—systems with many RF nodes clustered to meet capacity and coverage demands--that promise to provide a foundation for 5G deployments in the future, Mair said.

“As 5G evolves and gets implemented, the LTE network … is going to be really, really quick and fast and provide a lot of capability” he said. “It's not going anywhere fast. It's going to be around a long time. It's going to backstop the 5G network and provide services well into the future for us.”

One of AT&T’s key LTE initiatives is FirstNet. Mair said it is a “great honor” for AT&T to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) for FirstNet.

“First responders do great work impacting our lives and many people's lives every single day and they need a great network for communications in doing what they need to do,” he said.

A key reason that deploying FirstNet on 20 MHz of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum works economically for AT&T  is that the carrier simultaneously will enable broadband services to be offered over an additional 40 MHz of fallow AWS-3 and WCS airwaves, Mair said.

“What we plan to do is we're going to use the FirstNet build, and—as we touch the towers to build FirstNet—we're going to put that other spectrum to use, and that's going to put a lot of capacity into the network … in a very efficient way,” Mair said.

“We call it kind of a single-touch or one-touch approach that, when you touch the tower, you're not touching it just for FirstNet, but you're touching to put other bands of spectrum and other spectrum in service, as well. I always view an engineer's job is to build high-quality capability with the lowest-unit cost, and that's the way you do it. You do it in a fashion like that.”

In addition, AT&T plans to densify its networks by deploying small cells to supplement its macro-network capacity and coverage from sites on traditional towers, Mair said.

“Small cells absolutely will play a part in the network,” Mair said. “We start with a macro network that's the densest out there right now, and then we'll augment with small cells. Small cells are a great way to provide capacity into areas where it's very difficult to build cell sites and such.

“And, as you build small cells for the LTE network, it pre-positions you for the infrastructure we're going to need for 5G, as well. So, there's a very good reason why you want to do small cells, and we're busy building. We'll do several thousand this year, and it will be augmenting the macro network as we see it today.”

Behind all of AT&T’s wireless and broadband initiatives is the need for fiber for backhaul and transport, Mair said. AT&T currently owns more than a million route miles of fiber and plans to extend its fiber reach significantly to support all of its varied interests in the most efficient manner possible.

“The key with fiber is how you actually deploy it,” Mair said. “When we deploy fiber, we don't deploy just for a small-cell solution or just for a cell-site solution. We take the collective needs of AT&T in our collective businesses. What businesses do we want to sell fiber services into? What residential areas or consumer areas do we want to offer broadband at gigabit speeds into? Where do we find the need for small cells in the future?

“Bringing all those assets together is the way that we build a fiber plan, because—for the person that's planning that fiber—the most important thing they need to know is the portal needs for the areas, so they know how many fibers to put in the cable.

“Why that's important is [because] the cost of a fiber build is not the fiber itself but the place-in cost—the build cost down streets, down alleyways and through backyards, that's where the cost is—so you’ve got to get the fiber sizing right.”