AT&T’s Donovan: With 5G, ‘this time it’s going to be different’

AT&T John Donovan
AT&T's John Donovan said companies are taking 5G into account in their plans for the future—a notable difference from the industry’s largely autonomous transitions to 3G and 4G.

BARCELONA, Spain—AT&T’s John Donovan said that the industry’s move to 5G is progressing differently than the sector’s previous migrations to 4G and 3G before that.

“I really think this time is going to be different,” he said of 5G during an event here at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and group president for the carrier’s Technology and Operations, explained that in previous network evolutions, such as the wireless industry’s move to 3G, the networks were built out well before there were applications that could sufficiently take advantage of them.

He pointed to the original iPhone that was launched on AT&T’s EDGE network, which was at the time considered an upgraded 2G network. The introduction of AT&T’s 3G network provided the network support iPhone users needed to fully take advantage of their phones and apps.

Similarly, Donovan said the upgrade to LTE happened before the move to bandwidth-hungry, LTE-suitable apps, and only after the network became available did players design apps and services that took advantage of the speeds available via LTE.

But 5G, Donovan said, is developing differently. As an example, Donovan pointed to ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber. He said those companies are developing driverless car services based on the notion that 5G networks will soon be available to support those offerings. He said the driverless car services will only work in 5G areas thanks to the speeds and low latency available through 5G technology, and so Lyft and Uber will limit the availability of those services only to those areas.

It’s an example, Donovan said, of companies taking 5G into account in their plans for the future—which represents a notable difference from the industry’s largely autonomous transitions to 3G and 4G.

Not surprisingly, AT&T is one of a handful of global wireless network operators working to push the 5G standard into commercial availability. The operator was one of a number of high-profile companies that signed off on a proposal to support a corresponding work plan for the first phase of the 5G NR specification at the next 3GPP RAN plenary meeting March 6-9 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The move is geared toward speeding the eventual completion of the full 5G standard.

Further, AT&T said it will launch its first “5G Evolution Markets” in the coming months in Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis, and it will build two new 5G test beds set to go on air this spring at the AT&T Labs in Austin.