AT&T CEO highlights benefits of FirstNet, potential 5G use cases for critical infrastructure, enterprises
Winning the bid to build the nationwide FirstNet system on 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum has been very beneficial to AT&T overall strategy, allowing the carrier to grow its wireless business, improve network quality and lay the foundation for the transition to 5G, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said this week.
“FirstNet has gone off the charts,” Stephenson said during the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference. “It’s been as good as we could have ever hoped.”
When the FirstNet Authority issued its request for proposals in 2016, AT&T identified the project as “a must-win for us,” Stephenson said. In addition to getting access to the 10×10 MHz swath of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority, the FirstNet buildout required telecom crews to install new gear on towers throughout the country—something AT&T was going to have to do to deploy significant swaths of fallow spectral holdings and to ready its network for 5G, Stephenson said.
“By virtue of FirstNet, spectrum aggregation, 5G, we’re climbing these cell towers one time and accomplishing three purposes,” he said. “We’ve been doing this, and we’re literally—over the course of about three years—are increasing the entire nationwide capacity of the AT&T wireless network by 50%.
“I’ve been doing this almost 38 years. Those words have never come out of my mouth, to just, that quickly, boost capacity in a nationwide network by 50%.”
As a result of this work, AT&T now has “unequivocally the fastest wireless network, the best-quality network,” Stephenson said, noting that “we’ve exceeded the competition, and the gap is widening.” In addition, these efforts have positioned the company to have a nationwide 5G footprint in the middle of next year on its commercial spectrum bands below 6 GHz, he said.
Industry experts have stated that deploying 5G in the sub-6 GHz will let carriers deliver greater data throughput speeds. But Stephenson noted that “what 5G facilitates goes so much beyond that,” particularly where ultra-dense cell networks operating on millimeter-wave airwaves—leveraging hundreds of MHz of spectrum, in some cases—are deployed.
“You’re moving into an era of connectivity like we haven’t conceived of before,” he said. “This isn’t just marginally better.”
While 4G LTE can support thousands of devices in a square mile, 5G can support millions of devices in the same geographic area, which is “a different business proposition for everybody,” Stephenson said.
Location-based services also should improve, which could greatly enhance security efforts, according to Stephenson.
“In 4G, because you’re using basically GPS technology, [carriers can] locate a device, a car or whatever within meters,” Stephenson said. “In the world of 5G, you begin to locate devices within a couple of centimeters—you’re measuring in centimeters.
“Now, think about this from a security standpoint. [For] somebody in banking, who might have a card with say, a large-scale equipment manufacturer like Apple, [think about] what that could mean to you in terms of security—being able to locate an individual within centimeters of a particular area, being able to set up geo-fencing in a particular area, and [establishing policies that] ‘You can only access our data if you’re in that particular area,’ measured within centimeters. That’s a big game changer, as well.”
With 5G’s high-speed and low-latency connectivity, providers like AT&T can deliver “real-time networking” capabilities that could result in broadband devices being redesigned, because computer processing can be executed at the network edge, instead of relying solely on the processing power within the device, Stephenson said.
“All of a sudden, when you have networks this fast, you can begin to push a lot of these requirements into the edge of the network,” Stephenson said. “So, you’re getting cloud distributed down to the edge of the network. This brings a whole different level of speed, but it also brings a whole different level of imagination, in terms of what your form factors starts to look like.”
In this environment concepts like Google Glass “that everybody laughed about … is truly feasible,” Stephenson said. In addition, low-power, microscopic sensors could become realistic, which could have significant impacts on a number of sectors, including traffic management, autonomous cars, pipeline management and utility systems, he said.
“What it facilitates is a whole different level of thinking,” Stephenson said.
This notion that 5G networks could have such a broad societal impact in many critical-infrastructure arenas necessitates careful consideration of some significant policy decisions, particularly as it relates to security issues, according to Stephenson.
“I have to remind people, if it goes here, then think about how much of our country’s infrastructure [and] day-to-day business activity is underpinned by this kind of technology,” Stephenson said. “Then ask yourself: Is it rational that the United States government has a concern about who might be supplying that kind of infrastructure?”