Since launching last December, AT&T’s low-band flavor of 5G is now available in 80 markets, and Opensignal knows what locations may get it next, based on cities where the carrier has already retired some of its 4G spectrum to repurpose for 5G.
Analyzing the 155 markets of top 200 Cellular Market Areas where AT&T has licensed 850 MHz spectrum, Opensignal observed that starting in November AT&T turned off 10 MHz of that spectrum in a number of markets where it had been in use for 4G, and subsequently launched low-band 5G in those cities in December.
Since November, Opensignal tracked 48 additional markets where AT&T reduced the amount of its 850 MHz spectrum used for 4G from 10 MHz to 0 MHz. AT&T’s 5G service launched in 37 of those markets in the following weeks.
“It’s given us pretty good confidence that this pattern of turning off this signal for 4G is a pretty strong indicator of launching the low-band 5G,” Brendan Gill, CEO of Opensignal told FierceWireless.
Some of the cities the company observed where AT&T’s low-band 5G using repurposed 850 MHz spectrum already launched include major markets like New York and Los Angeles, as well as smaller markets like Reading, Pennsylvania, and Provo, Utah. Earlier this month AT&T expanded low-band 5G to 22 additional markets, now covering more than 80 million people with plans for nationwide coverage by mid-year.
So where to next? AT&T has turned off 10 MHz of 850 MHz spectrum for 4G in nine markets, where Opensignal believes the carrier is preparing to launch 5G. Two of those, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, saw AT&T retire 4G spectrum in January. AT&T reduced 4G spectrum in February in the following seven markets: Syracuse, New York; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Huntsville, Alabama; Lexington, Kentucky; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Reno, Nevada; and Springfield, Missouri.
Opensignal noted that out of the 155 markets, AT&T owns 25 MHz of 850 MHz spectrum in 135 markets, 50 MHz in 13 markets and licenses part of the band in the remaining seven markets. The data suggests AT&T is repurposing 10 MHz previously allocated for 4G to deploy its 5G service in those markets, and appears to be keeping the remaining portion of the 850 MHz band to support 3G customers until its planned shutdown of that service in early 2022, according to the analysis.
Pace of AT&T’s 5G launches
The data also indicates the pace and timing of AT&T’s low-band 5G deployments.
While Gill said the analysis doesn’t provide a specific timeframe, Opensignal observed an average four-week period from the time AT&T completes refarming 4G spectrum (and the signal is turned off) until the carrier launches 5G service. That gap has ranged from a few weeks to as much as a month or two, during which time Gill expects there are some technical check and tests happening, as well as commercial preparation for the market launch.
Opensignal hasn’t observed any outlier markets where AT&T has turned off part of its spectrum for 4G for an inordinate amount of time without launching 5G service.
Gill indicated the time period of how fast AT&T deploys 5G after turning off 4G spectrum could change as the carrier’s process becomes more efficient
“[The pace] could potentially speed up as AT&T launches in more places. Repeating that process they may start doing it quicker and more aggressively in the future,” Gill said. He also noted that things could change when technologies like dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) come into play, allowing operators to utilize the same spectrum for both 4G and 5G services.
On the flip side of where Opensignal anticipates AT&T’s next 5G launches, the analysis also gives clues about which cities may not see 5G deployments in the immediate future.
It calls out 26 markets where Opensignal hasn’t observed AT&T reduce its amount of 850 MHz spectrum used for 4G. Notably, those include large markets like Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis.
“We can’t say definitely that [5G] is not going to launch there or going to be delayed, but it doesn’t look like there’s going to be an imminent launch,” Gill added.
When looking at where AT&T has and has not refarmed 4G spectrum for 5G, he said there’s not an immediately obvious pattern to the markets, noting there’s likely a variety of factors that go into which cities AT&T prioritizes.
“It’s really quite a mismatch of really large cities and small cities,” he said.
Reducing 4G spectrum by 10 MHz in certain markets shouldn’t have a major impact on 4G availability as AT&T still has plenty of other spectrum for LTE services, but it may mean there’s a slightly smaller lane, according to Gill.
Still that shouldn’t cause an issue as AT&T over the last 18 months has bolstered its network with additional spectrum, including Band 14 that it acquired and is deploying as part of its FirstNet public safety contract.
Speaking at an investor conference in December, AT&T CFO John Stephens said that in connection with its FirstNet build and 5G site upgrades, the carrier was deploying about 150-170 MHz of low- and mid-band spectrum. He noted at the time that AT&T likely has about 50% more mid and low-and spectrum than its closest competitor, Verizon.
However, now that Sprint and T-Mobile are close to finalizing their merger, the New T-Mobile will have significant spectrum resources at its disposal. According to analysts at New Street Research, once the deal closes T-Mobile will start deploying 60 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum across roughly 70,000 cell sites, as well as its 600 MHz, 700 MHz, PCS and AWS spectrum on Sprint sites it retains.
T-Mobile didn’t have the same market-by-market 5G process as AT&T, with Gill noting the operator launched its low-band 5G in a much wider range of cities on day one last year.