Low latency helps fuel bigger 5G opportunity: American Tower CEO

5G blue lines
For American Tower CEO Tom Bartlett, 5G is largely about latency rather than speed. (Getty Images)

American Tower President and CEO Tom Bartlett anticipates 5G will be around for at least the next decade, providing a bigger opportunity for the tower company than 4G – in part because of capabilities like low latency for new applications.

Speaking at a Goldman Sachs event Wednesday, Bartlett reiterated the sentiment that 5G is in the early innings.

“I don't think we've even touched what the opportunity is going to be for us in the United States,” Bartlett said, according to a transcript.

And for him, benefits of 5G largely stem from low latency rather than speed.

Latency is the roundtrip time it takes for data to traverse the network – right now interactive AR/VR experiences or real-time multi-player mobile gaming are some common examples in terms of improved performance with lower latency. Average 4G LTE latencies are around 50 milliseconds, while ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) possible with 5G could see it in the 5 ms range.

“I look at the opportunities for applications, new ways of doing business, new ways of living, new ways that you and I are actually living our lives are going to be impacted by the benefits of 5G,” Bartlett said. “And that's different than we've seen in 4G or 3G.”

Opportunities in terms of growth also will be very different than earlier technology generations, he added.

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“It's going to be outsized, I think, versus even 4G. And simply because that additional compute capability, that additional opportunity for low latency applications is really going to impact more of the processes that we use within our business and within our daily lives,” Bartlett said. “I think that's kind of a game changer. And I think that's why the carriers are so excited about what they see 5G could – how it could develop and kind of a life changing ways it could have on everything that we do.”

Bartlett didn’t cite any specific examples, saying there are applications out there but that 5G will enable things that aren’t known yet. Still, he expressed confidence in the capabilities of the technology itself in bringing changes to the way people live.

“And with that requires more infrastructure, requires more equipment on the sites itself, more capability on the sites themselves, to be able to deploy it,” he said. “So, that's why we're so excited about the kind of the next three to five years” and taking advantage of 5G.

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During the second quarter American Tower saw a record number of applications for its towers with leasing activity levels high as carriers invest across different elements of their networks, according to Bartlett. That includes bolstering 4G, nationwide 5G deployments, and gearing up to deploy new spectrum in the 3.7 GHz C-band starting later this year. Dish also is starting to move on its greenfield 5G network build.

In terms of low latency, edge computing also comes into play and is something the tower company has its eye on in the early phases to leverage its real estate infrastructure as a global distribution network. American Tower has already fired up six small-scale edge compute trials at tower sites and down the line thinks the total addressable market could be in the billions of dollars annually.

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Bartlett called out edge compute as a real opportunity and again pointed to those taking advantage of low latency “5 millisecond-type of applications.”   

He sees American Tower in a unique spot to provide value to cloud players or global operators.

“I firmly believe that there is a sizable opportunity for us in the [mobile edge compute] space,” he said.