AT&T’s Donovan ‘not a fan’ of network sharing for 5G

AT&T's John Donovan speaks during the keynote event at the company's Developer Summit.

LAS VEGAS – AT&T’s John Donovan said he doesn’t believe network sharing is a good way for the industry to deploy 5G services.

"The potential to do a big quality degradation is too high,” he said on the sidelines of AT&T’s Developer Summit here, held in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Show.

Donovan explained that, in the millimeter wave spectrum bands that will be used in future 5G networks, signals won’t propagate very far, and there is significantly more potential for interference between different systems.

"It's a very complex RF task to manage that, and I don't think that to facilitate an economic benefit that's unknown and not that big, that we should take on a potential quality headache to do so. I'm not a fan of it personally,” Donovan said of network sharing.

Although a number of European wireless operators have inked network sharing agreements for various network buildouts, Donovan argued that there is little evidence that such efforts have resulted in significant cost savings or market gains. Further, he said that the types of services that are supported by wireless networks—from simple daily communications to critical medical systems—might be negatively affected by a network sharing agreement between different operators with different strategies and systems.

Donovan’s comments are notable because, late last year, outgoing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler used his appearance at a wireless industry trade show to push for network-sharing agreements as a way to speed up the deployment of 5G.

Wheeler pointed out that there are just over 200,000 cell towers in the U.S., but there may be “millions of small cell sites in the 5G future.” To address that challenge, he urged the industry to “think creatively about smart solutions to the deployment of the antennas necessary for 5G to benefit the public.”

“To be clear, I’m not endorsing shared infrastructure in every and all circumstances, and certainly not opening a door to consolidation,” Wheeler said. “But I am saying that if we’re talking about thousands of antennas in a city, and you’ve got four carriers, and we are serious about leading the world in 5G deployment in our very large and spread-out country, we ought to explore creative options on how best to build that infrastructure.”

In response to Wheeler’s comments, Sprint’s Günther Ottendorfer said that “we would certainly look at it.” Ottendorfer is Sprint’s technical chief operating officer.

But AT&T’s aversion to network sharing is notable considering the progress the company is making toward 5G. Last year AT&T conducted a number of 5G tests and trials, and this week the company announced it will conduct a trial in Austin, Texas, with residential customers streaming DirecTV Now video service over a fixed wireless 5G connection starting in the first half of 2017.