AT&T CEO says FirstNet build is one-third completed, will help 5G push and increase network capacity by 50% by end of 2019
AT&T is six months ahead of its contracted schedule to deploy the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet, and the public-safety initiative will result in increasing the capacity of its network by 50% by the end of 2019 and preparing the carrier for a smooth migration to 5G, according to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
AT&T “made a full-court press” to win the FirstNet contract to build and maintain the nationwide public-safety broadband network, and the reasons for pursuing the first-responder project are coming to fruition, Stephenson said yesterday during his keynote interview at the UBS Conference
“First and foremost, … we have a very low share of that [first-responder] market,” Stephenson said. “The ability to be able to build a nationwide first-responder network and pursue that market opportunity was really, really important.
“The second is, it required us to build out a nationwide first-responder network, which meant we were going to have to go climb every cell tower in the United States to deploy this network … So, we have completed one-third of the network build as of last quarter—one-third of the way through. We’re there six months earlier than what the contract requires with the government to do.”
Stephenson noted that 3,600 public-safety agencies—representing 250,000 users—have subscribed to the FirstNet system, but the benefits to the carrier extend well beyond those metrics.
While AT&T crews deploy the equipment at cell sites needed to support operations on the 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum, they also have installed gear that lets the carrier provide services on 20 MHz of WCS spectrum and 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum. Stephenson reiterated the strategic benefits of this approach and said AT&T expects to begin realizing a “spectrum dividend” from the effort in 2019.
“While we’re climbing every cell tower to deploy FirstNet, … we’re turning up all of not only the FirstNet spectrum that we got, but all of this other spectrum that we’ve acquired over the last few years,” Stephenson said.
“By the time we get to end of 2019, we will have increased the capacity on AT&T’s network by 50% … I always have to pause and think about this. The entire AT&T wireless network capacity is going to increase over the next 14 months by 50%. I mean, that’s huge.”
In addition, this deployment work includes the installation of 5G antennas, which provides the foundation for a smooth transition to 5G services, Stephenson said.
So, [with] one climb, you’re getting the FirstNet capacity put in place, the tower ready for FirstNet, you’re putting up 5G antennas, and you’re deploying all this spectrum,” he said.
“Now that we have the 5G antennas up on the tower, we’re at a place where, when 5G is ready—which we’ll be doing this second half of this year, last part of this year—all it requires is a software upgrade to turn 5G on. This is a big deal.”
AT&T customers in parts of 12 markets will begin to see data-throughput speeds up to 400 MB/s—”step-change improvement in speeds”—from this 5G Evolution effort this year, Stephenson said. While rival Verizon has announced plans to deployed 5G as a wireless alternative to fixed-line broadband, AT&T’s 5G focus will be different, he said.
“Our early priority for 5G will be enterprise applications,” Stephenson said. “We’re already having a lot of interest in people pursuing robotic plants—the ability to do networking in robotic plants and so forth.
“If you think about it, if you have a wide area network that has 1 [GB/s] type throughputs, then—if you’re a CIO or somebody who run a manufacturing facility or an administrative office—why do you need a LAN, once you have that kind of throughput and that kind of capacity?”
Stephenson said AT&T is making investments to deliver augmented-reality and virtual-reality applications, as well as solutions for one of the most intriguing potential 5G use cases—autonomous vehicles.
“Obviously, we’re all talking about autonomous cars,” Stephenson said. “You cannot talk autonomous cars until you can conceive of a network with no latency. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get in a driverless car if there’s a lot of latency in a network.”