AT&T exec: We'll be adding 1,500 to 3,000 cell sites per year for 'foreseeable future'

ORLANDO, Fla.--AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) will likely be adding between 1,500 and 3,000 macro cell sites to its network per year for the next few years as part of a wide-ranging effort to beef up its network and improve coverage and capacity, according to a senior AT&T executive.

Bill Smith, president of AT&T network operations

Smith

Bill Smith, president of AT&T network operations, said the carrier would be adding that many sites to its network per year "for the foreseeable future." That will likely happen in parallel with AT&T's deployment of new spectrum bands for LTE service, such as the 2.3 GHz WCS band or AWS-3 band, which the FCC will be auctioning later this year. However, the addition of new macro sites is just one element in AT&T's ongoing transformation of its wireless network, he said.

Speaking here in a keynote address at the PCIA wireless infrastructure conference, Smith said AT&T is also focusing on small cells and Dsitributed Antenna Systems as key elements of its network planning to improve inbuilding coverage and gain spectral efficiencies in cost-effective ways. AT&T has committed to deploying 40,000 small cells on its network by the end of 2015 and Smith said the carrier has already deployed both indoor and outdoor small cells in 30 states.

Smith also said AT&T is using tower-mounted radio heads to prevent power loss to its antennas, a move that also boosts signal strength.

Another element of AT&T's strategy is to embrace carrier aggregation, which bonds together disparate bands of spectrum to produce wider channels and faster speeds. Carrier aggregation is one technique enabled by LTE Advanced and Smith promised that ATT will divulge more of its LTE Advanced plans later this year. He said carrier aggregation is "probably one of the single most important" things AT&T can do to improve the performance of its wireless networks.

AT&T is also using self-optimizing network technology to improve network reliability and user speeds. Smith said that historically, it has taken around six to 12 months to optimize the network, whether that's via antenna realignment or other techniques. SON 2.0 techniques will give AT&T the capability to do things like dynamic interference management and change the tilt of antennas dynamically, he added.

Finally, AT&T is also moving ahead with its User-Defined Network Cloud initiative, which is based around using Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). Smith said in its network today, AT&T has "dozens of special, purpose-built pieces of equipment that do a particular function. It doesn't have to be that way." By virtualizing hardware functions into software and running it on commodity hardware, AT&T can cut costs and make its network more flexible and adaptable, he said.

"We think that's going to provide a lot of cost savings for us going forward," Smith said. That does not mean AT&T will build fewer cell sites or deploy fewer small cells, but AT&T will get more efficiency out of its network, he said.

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