AT&T plans to deploy public-safety LTE service on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum more quickly than expected, with about one-third of the projected buildout to be completed by next April, according to AT&T Chief Financial Officer (CFO) John Stephens.

“We’ll touch 10,000-plus towers by the end of the year,” Stephens said yesterday during the Cowen Technology, Media and Telecom Conference. “We have metrics that are part of public record with regard to FirstNet with regard to hitting 31% of the overall build scheme by the [end of the] first quarter of next year. I would expect that we would not only hit that but beat that.

“Our network guys are focused like a laser on this, and their limits are on what they can do efficiently, not necessarily just meeting a goal of the FirstNet authority. We would much rather get it done quicker—it makes sense, as long as we can do it efficiently.”

A primary component to meeting the efficiency goal is the fact that AT&T—FirstNet’s contractor to build and maintain a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) for the next 25 years—will deploy equipment enabling operations on the carrier’s AWS-3 and WCS spectrum at the same time that the Band 14 functionality is enabled, Stephens said.

“In building this out, we’re going to go to a cell site, and we’re going to take the 700 [MHz Band 14 spectrum] and we are going to put it on,” he said. “While we’re climbing that tower, we’re going to put our AWS-3 [spectrum] that we bought in the last auction that isn’t fully in service, and we are going to take the WCS that we’ve owned for some years and put in service.

“So, we are going to get three bands of spectrum up, with one … tower climb, and it is going to be really really efficient—especially when the government is paying you for their people through the FirstNet reimbursement program.”

Overall, this approach will result in AT&T adding LTE operations on 60 MHz of spectrum—the 20 MHz of Band 14 airwaves licensed to FirstNet, as well as 20 MHz swaths in both the AWS-3 and WCS bands. AT&T is scheduled to receive $6.5 billion from FirstNet for meeting buildout benchmarks for the NPSBN deployment.

Stephens said the FirstNet deployment will be conducted in a manner that also prepares the AT&T cell sites for a smooth migration to 5G technology.

“That FirstNet build—and everything related FirstNet—is in anticipation of 5G,” Stephens said. “As we put up all of these antennas, we are going to put them up as if they are there 5G-capable. So, when 5G does come, we just do a software change at the ground level; we don’t have to climb the tower again.”

Stephens reiterated AT&T’s plans to introduce mobile 5G service by the end of the year, with the expectation that 5G handsets will be more widely available during 2019. As for fixed 5G service, Stephens said that the company believes other broadband technologies make better economic sense for serving residential customers, but there are some intriguing use cases in the enterprise space.

“We’ll see fixed wireless be used in that sense in manufacturing operations, with robotic equipment and machines, where business operators want to connect those machines back to a central point to manage and have information,” Stephens said. “I’d expect that we’ll see a lot of those applications.

“But, as a general, residential broadband solution, the economics for us don’t seem to work … We can do this in a number of ways; we’re not tied to just one technology.”