AT&T’s mmWave 5G takes off at Tampa airport

AT&T saw international roaming revenues hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. (Getty Images)

AT&T has launched millimeter wave 5G service in parts of Tampa, Florida, including Tampa International Airport.

Tampa International (TPA) is the first airport announced but AT&T said it’s been working to deploy mmWave 5G – branded 5G+ – in airports across the country. Other locations haven’t been disclosed yet. 

The rollout used spectrum in the 39 GHz band and comes ahead of Super Bowl LV, which takes place in Tampa at the Raymond James Stadium on February 7.

AT&T’s 5G+ service is live in parts of 39 cities, though the carrier has been quieter on the mmWave front than competitor Verizon.

For its latest launch, 5G+ service is focused on popular areas and venues in the Tampa Bay area. Those include the downtown Channel District, Raymond James Stadium and the Tampa International Airport; a disclaimer notes "5G+ is very limited and not available in all parts of locations."

To tap 5G+, consumers need a compatible 5G device and subscribe to AT&T’s unlimited tier service plans. Samsung yesterday unveiled its newest Galaxy device lineup, with support for certain sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave bands for 5G – and notably including C-band, PCMag’s Sasha Sagan confirmed.  

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The Galaxy S21 smartphone models support mmWave at 28 GHz (used by Verizon) and 39 GHz, but the 24 GHz band appears to be absent. AT&T holds a large amount of mmWave spectrum in the 24 GHz and 39 GHz bands.

5G+ debuted at TPA last month and coverage is available within the facility including airplane boarding gates. Deployments at other select airports are part of a multi-year project and also will focus on connectivity at major gate and concession areas.

The high-band 5G service is meant to provide passenger connectivity for faster streaming and downloading movies, as well as logistics like navigating around the airport and flight updates. It can also help airports enhance airline operational efficiency and other operations on-site, according to AT&T.

In a statement, Marcus Session, TPA’s VP of Information Technology Services, called it a “tremendous enhancement for our passengers and guests” and the timing ahead of Super Bowl LV.

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Like many events in the face of Covid-19, the upcoming Super Bowl is set to be different than years past. And in 2020 the pandemic significantly impacted domestic and international travel, with more Americans choosing to stick close to home and restrictions on travel. However, once travel eventually resumes, airports may want to put their best face forward.

“With the future increase of airport traffic, it is important that our wireless networks are enhanced to support the connected traveler,” Session stated. “Having this kind of connectivity will help improve the passenger experience and create a positive impression for everyone who uses it.”

Although the wireless industry wasn’t as impacted by the pandemic as others, operators including AT&T took hits to roaming revenue as travel plummeted.

“As Americans gain confidence traveling again, we’re proud to bring AT&T 5G+ to its first airport, with more to come nationwide,” said Jay Cary, VP-5G Product & Innovation Postpaid Wireless Products, in a statement. “Providing our 5G+ network in airports across the country will help enhance experiences of streaming and downloading movies and games, securely access demanding business applications…”

There are vaccine distribution efforts underway in the U.S., but expectations for a travel bounce-back aren’t crystal clear.

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During a Citi investor conference earlier this month retiring AT&T CFO John Stephens cited remaining uncertainty around a resurgence in roaming.

“One of the bigger challenges in wireless this past year was wireless roaming revenues related to international travel,” Stephens said. “And quite frankly I’m not sure when that’s going to come back.”

Stephens added that it’s something he and AT&T follow carefully, and that the airline industry is keenly interested in, but “I’m not betting on that having a crystal ball as to when that’s going to bounce back.”