NEW YORK CITY—AT&T on Wednesday gave a 5G push at a media event here where it showcased a flurry of partnerships and a few media-focused experiences. This week the carrier also hit the 250 million 5G coverage mark and removed data caps from its premium unlimited plan.
“We’re at the cusp of a decade of 5G… and we’ve been working up to this point for a long time getting all of the parts in place,” said David Christopher, EVP and general manager - Partnerships & 5G Ecosystem Development for AT&T Mobility, in an interview with Fierce at the WarnerMedia Innovation Lab. “You have to have the stars align on multiple fronts.”
(Separately, AT&T brought some "star" power to the event, with Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba each joining panel sessions to discuss 5G).
It’s been a relatively long gestation period, Christopher acknowledged, for getting 5G ecosystem infrastructure in place. For AT&T the elements coming together include deploying spectrum, building out 5G capabilities and coverage, getting handsets deployed and enabling all rate plans with 5G. Most handsets sold by AT&T are now 5G enabled, which he said has proliferated since starting last fall. Light Reading reported that Apple’s iPhone with 5G is seeing a super cycle and device upgrades present an opportunity to switch carriers. AT&T has been focused on keeping customers including revamped plans, including Elite Unlimited with 5G access and no throttling, and device promotions.
Now AT&T feels it can put experiences and applications on top of its network, a category where investment is flowing very rapidly, Christopher said. In his view, the two big changes 5G brings is to performance, including speed and latency, and the ability to connect a massive number of devices.
“So we’re finally at a point where we can build these experiences and have them ready for prime time, both in the enterprise space and in the consumer space,” he noted.
Some of AT&T’s partners on display at the lab in New York included Google with Stadia for cloud gaming, e-book company Bookful showcasing augmented reality with children’s books, the NBA and WNBA (AT&T is the leagues’ official 5G innovation partner, working on concepts for fan experiences), and Boingo.
Bookful offers a library of digital classic children’s books, enhanced by AR to help kids explore different subjects visually.
In a new partnership, AT&T is tacking on a free six-month Bookful subscription for new and existing customers that have a 5G device. There are a few AT&T-exclusive 5G experiences, including 10 AR books.
During a panel session, Bookful founder and chief marketing officer Dana Porter Rubenstein said 40% of reading activities are now done on e-books or in audible formats.
“From a consumer perspective people are changing habits in how they consume things,” Rubenstein said, triggering their perspective on how AR and reading coming together with 5G. The Bookful AR application already works on 4G, but she said that with 5G it’s much richer.
AT&T also is working with Facebook Reality Labs, including an AR effect that ties into the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy (coming out on HBO Max this week). Users take their picture on a 5G device and can drop in an AR Space Jam character that can be shared on Facebook or Instagram. At the lab it paired with Microsoft for 5G AR demo that will also be showcased at flagship AT&T retail stores in Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco. A ‘Tune Squad’ character was visible on a mobile device overlay of a real-world table top – users could take a selfie and personalize it with a jersey and height stats, then see an AR Bugs Bunny introduce them, creating an animated video and picture that’s shareable on social media.
For the 5G event, the lab was equipped with 39 GHz millimeter wave spectrum, although Christopher said the applications could run on AT&T’s nationwide 5G network. For nationwide 5G, the carrier is using lower band spectrum and dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS).
AT&T is notably waiting on C-band spectrum it acquired at auction, with the first 40 MHz expected to be ready later this year.
“It will be something that dramatically augments the [5G] experience,” Christopher said of turning on the key midband airwaves. The aim is to cover 70-75 million people with C-band by 2022 and 200 million by 2023. Millimeter wave, meanwhile, will be deployed in about 40 venues by the end of 2021.
Still, independent testing from Tutela earlier this year concluded consumers with 5G devices aren’t seeing a vast improvement over 4G users yet. Over the 10-year 5G cycle, Christopher said every element will get better – including significant improvements in low-band spectrum.
However, showing early real-world examples of how consumers and enterprises can use 5G is a key focus as the carrier works to attract, retain, and step-up customers to higher-tier plans. Christopher pointed to real-time responsiveness in cloud gaming with Stadia and bringing stories to life with Bookful as tangible examples of benefits users can have on 5G today, as AT&T continues to invest in improvements and make 5G more accessible.
“These are just the start of what’s to come,” he said, of the media-focused applications. “A lot of what we’ve been preparing for is coming to life now.
Update to David Christopher's title.