AT&T's Donovan: When it comes to 5G, timing is everything

Like most major operators AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) is already looking ahead to 5G even though there are many unknowns about what 5G will be and how it will be deployed in the network. Despite that uncertainty, AT&T's most difficult 5G decision will be when to deploy it. Speaking at the Citi 2015 Global Internet, Media & Telecommunications Conference Tuesday in Las Vegas, John Donovan, SVP of AT&T technology and network operations, said the hardest part of 5G is knowing the timing of it. "There is a penalty to being early and a penalty to being late. The timing is important," he said.

Donovan also said that he expects 5G to be about a "decade out," making it closer to the 2025 time frame than the 2020 date that many technology vendors are predicting for 5G deployments.

Interestingly, Donovan said he is not that concerned about how the industry defines 5G or what technology actually ends up being used for 5G.  He said that whenever the industry moves from one "G" to the next "G" the technology that is deployed always produces a leapfrog in the amount of bits per hertz. 

Donovan also talked about the company's VoLTE deployment and how AT&T is densifying its network as well as optimizing it so that the consumer doesn't experience dropped calls when using VoLTE. "VoLTE has been a good march for us," Donovan said.  "We are happy with the performance of the network and our dropped call rates. We are methodically re-optimizing the network from one that is about data speed and latency to one that is about voice. We have to have a network without holes."

In November AT&T said it offered VoLTE-based HD Voice in select areas in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin and said it would continue to expand VoLTE on a market-by-market basis. AT&T supports VoLTE-based HD Voice on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini as well as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and will add more devices over time.

Donovan also talked briefly about the status of the company's 2G network, which it has said it will decommission in 2016.  AT&T has been actively refarming the 2G spectrum for LTE and Donovan said that in most markets there is only 5 MHz or 10 MHz of spectrum that is still devoted to the 2G network. The rest has already been refarmed.

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Related articles:
Verizon, AT&T to launch VoLTE-to-VoLTE calling interoperability in 2015
SK Telecom planning 'hyper-connected infrastructure' for 5G
Europe pushes forward in the race to 5G

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