AT&T to begin selling LAA equipment for 5 GHz soon, service will launch sometime this year

spectrum (Pixabay)
AT&T expects to begin selling LAA-capable hardware in the “imminent” future, with plans to fully launch the technology sometime this year.

BARCELONA, Spain—A top AT&T executive said that the carrier expects to begin selling LAA-capable hardware in the “imminent” future. He added that he expects AT&T to fully launch the technology sometime this year.

The comments are noteworthy considering Verizon and T-Mobile have already said they will likely launch LTE-U technology, which is similar to LAA technology, this spring now that the FCC announced it has authorized the first LTE-U devices in the 5 GHz band.

AT&T’s Gordon Mansfield, VP of the carrier’s RAN and device design, said that AT&T will soon launch some kind of equipment that includes support for Band 46, the band that’s designed for the unlicensed 5 GHz band. Although he declined to say what kind of equipment AT&T is launching (it’s likely some unannounced phone), Mansfield explained that it would be the first hardware AT&T will sell that will include support for Band 46.

Mansfield explained that AT&T intends to use the 5 GHz band to launch License Assisted Access (LAA), which is a technology like LTE-U that allows wireless carriers to transmit LTE signals in unlicensed spectrum. Mansfield explained that pushing LTE transmissions into unlicensed spectrum would allow AT&T to offer faster download speeds to its subscribers.

Although AT&T will soon launch equipment that can support LAA, the carrier won’t immediately offer the service. Mansfield explained that the carrier will likely issue a software update to the equipment later this year to turn on LAA capability. Wireless carriers often “seed” their markets with equipment that’s capable of supporting new features before they turn those features on.

AT&T’s actions follow a recent announcement by the FCC that it will begin authorizing LTE-U devices. The agency had been withholding such authorization due to concerns from the Wi-Fi industry that LTE transmissions in unlicensed spectrum might interfere with existing Wi-Fi users in the same spectrum. However, the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, reversed that position just weeks after replacing the outgoing chairman, Tom Wheeler.

“LTE-U allows wireless providers to deliver mobile data traffic using unlicensed spectrum while sharing the road, so to speak, with Wi-Fi,” Pai said of his decision. “The excellent staff of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology has certified that the LTE-U devices being approved today are in compliance with FCC rules.”