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5G is only AT&T’s third priority, after FirstNet and LTE-Advanced

AT&T may be held up as one of the world’s most advanced 5G operators, but 5G is only third on its list of priorities for investment and deployment, according to chief of operations, Scott Mair.

Mair told an investor conference that the operator’s first priority is currently the build-out of the FirstNet public safety network, which brings new spectrum and a valuable anchor tenant, as well as extending coverage to support other services. The second is expanding the LTE-Advanced network.

This is a welcome sanity check – even operators in the forefront of 5G will still see greater returns from expanding their established 4G networks, in nearly all locations, for the next few years. Enhanced coverage and capacity for 4G can support most of the improvements in user experience, and the new applications, that are promised for 5G. Those that are 5G-reliant, such as those requiring ultra-low latency, must wait for future standards releases anyway, and in many cases, for a full 5G core (which most MNOs will not deploy for at least two more years, and often far more).

AT&T is a case in point. It was a very early deployer, but initially offering just fixed wireless services in a handful of markets. It is live in 19 cities and will add mobility this year, but coverage of those cities will not be complete – like most MNOs, it will target 5G at areas and applications that really require it, but keep polishing up 4G for everywhere else. LTE-Advanced, which AT&T has controversially dubbed ‘5GE’, is live in 500 markets, by contrast, and more are being activated as the MNO leverages some of its unused spectrum reserves in bands like WCS.

“This time next year we’ll have nationwide coverage of 5G on a macro tower backed up by our 5G evolution [LTE-Advanced] capability on those same towers,” Mair told the Cowen & Co conference.

The fourth and fifth priorities are fiber deployment and network virtualization. The company has one of the largest virtualization and software-defined networking programs in the world, and aims to virtualize about 75% of its network functions by next year. The next big project will be to deploy the 5G core, which Mair said “has a fundamental capability to architect services on top of that core”.

“In the LTE world it’s been very difficult to architect services other than broadband-based applications,” Mair said. “With the new core we’ll be able to architect services specific to IoT, or maybe video applications or certain use cases that face off to needs of enterprise customers. That gives us an innovation platform that was not necessarily there in the LTE environment.”

The core is likely to be fully deployed in 2021. Eventually, the RAN will also be virtualized, though AT&T has said that will be the last element to be re-architected as software in the cloud, because of the challenges of that migration.

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