Indeed, Stephenson said this FirstNet deployment is critical to the company’s strategy for providing low-latency 5G services as efficiently as possible.

“We can't talk about FirstNet without talking about our fiber deployment, without talking about our 5G deployment—they all go hand in hand,” Stephenson said last week during the J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference.

When AT&T has crews install equipment to support Band 14, WCS and AWS-3 spectrum at cell sites, they also will enable carrier-aggregation technology that leverages 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM, Stephenson said. Dubbed 5G Evolution, these upgrades immediately double the speeds of LTE service from the cell sites while preparing them for a smooth transition to 5G, he said.

“As we exit this year, we will have 500 markets with that full capability in place, where our LTE speeds will double,” Stephenson said. “Now take that across the entire footprint. Before you've even gotten to 5G, you have now doubled your LTE's performance by virtue of the FirstNet deployment. Also, while you are on every single cell site—because of FirstNet—we will be equipping every single cell site for 5G.

“When 5G is ready to roll, … what will be required from us is a software upgrade—we don’t have to go back and touch cell sites. So, we're going to touch the cell sites one time to deploy FirstNet, to deploy LTE evolution and to deploy 5G. [As] you put all this together, it's a very robust plan over the next two to three years to put all this in place, and all of it rolls together.”

Stephenson also said AT&T is responsible for hardening its network, “meaning making it resilient in storms and so forth, especially in the hurricane corridor, the earthquake corridors and … the tornado corridors.”