AT&T's Mair: Like Verizon, AT&T will have pre-standards 5G gear by end of 2017

While Verizon (NYSE: VZ) has been out in front waving the 5G banner for some time now, positioning itself as the leader that will deploy next-generation wireless before anyone else in the U.S., AT&T (NYSE: T) is no slouch when it comes to 5G -- according to AT&T.

"We haven't been sitting still on 5G. We've been doing a lot of work in the labs ourselves," said Scott Mair, senior vice president of technology planning and engineering at AT&T Services during the Jefferies 2016 Technology Conference today in Miami.

Mair said that typical commercial wireless deployments occur roughly a year after standards are issued, and he said the "Phase 1" 5G standards are currently scheduled to be released September of 2018.

In the meantime, Mair said AT&T expects to conduct a lot of work. "There's going to be a lot of labs work going on, a lot of labs testing, lots of proofs of concept. There's going to be some level of field deployments going on as well, as everybody is learning in this space," he said. "I know Verizon has announced what they plan to do by end of year '17, with some pre-standards gear. We will be doing the same. We expect that we will be doing some field level involvement with pre-standards gear by end of year '17. It's the way that you learn."

Granted, he said, there's always a risk with putting some pre-standards stuff out there, "but it's the best path forward for us and actually for the industry because what you learn then gets brought back into the standards bodies. So I think everybody is going to be on that learning curve."

Mair said Phase 1 of the 5G standard will cover the first use case of the technology, enhanced broadband wireless. He said there are two variations of that standard: a fixed wireless solution and a mobile solution. 

The other two use cases will come about a year later, by late 2019, he said. Those use cases are massive Internet of Things (IoT) -- supporting 1 million IoT devices within 1 square kilometer -- "so we need to re-architect some of the LTE architecture to support that in 5G," Mair said. 

"The other use case is what we call basically low latency, high reliability use cases, vehicle-to-vehicle, as well as medical device, smart cities, those types of things where we're going to need less than 1 millisecond on the air interface," he added.

AT&T is conducting trials in Austin, Texas, in partnership with Ericsson and Intel. "This summer, we'll be testing [a] 15 GHz configuration. By the end of the year, we'll be going to 28 GHz" and a fixed wireless configuration, he said. "Actually, in early '17, we'll be rotating into that mobility use case. So that's a set of testing that's going to be going on."

Here are a few other topics Mair covered in his presentation:

Small cells: Mair said AT&T's small cell spending will increase, but that won't necessarily increase AT&T's overall capex. Small cells are a precursor to using millimeter wave, he said.

Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi calling: 80 percent of AT&T's traffic that emanates from wireless devices is now carried by Wi-Fi, he said, though it's not architected for an elegant handoff. "The technology works, but when you get into the handoff issues and the consistency of experience, that's where I think we'll struggle at least at this point… It's part of the technology at this point," Mair said.

WCS and AWS-3 spectrum: Mair said AT&T started building out its WCS spectrum last year, and "by the end of this year, we'll be in several thousand sites in AT&T's network with WCS, so we're beginning that deployment." He added: "It's a small percentage of our overall network at this point in time but we're ramping it." 

Mair said AT&T generally deploys spectrum when it needs extra network capacity. "When we need to deploy capacity, we look at the right approach and right solution and WCS is the next band that we want to service so we're putting it into service to help us drive that capacity curve." Which means, he said, that AT&T is starting in dense, more urban areas where the capacity triggers come first, less so in rural and less dense areas. 

As for AWS-3, "we think late '17" to get familiar with it, but "we won't see any sort of volumes I think until 2018 of any significance."

For more:
- listen to the webcast

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