AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson told an audience at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference that AT&T will double LTE speeds for its customers in 500 markets this year.
"As we exit this year, we will have 500 markets with that full capability in place, where the LTE speeds will double," he said. "Now take that across the entire footprint. Before you've even gotten to 5G, you have now doubled your LTE performance."
Stephenson said the work AT&T is doing to build out the FirstNet public safety network will deliver the faster LTE speeds. He said the FirstNet deployment is now underway.
"We have to climb every cell site to deploy the FirstNet architecture," he said. "As we're climbing every single cell site, putting somebody on every single tower, we will be, by virtue of carrier aggregation, standing up all of the spectrum in our portfolio. We now have, with FirstNet, 60 megahertz of fallow spectrum. As people are up on the tower, we'll be launching the carriers to stand up all of that spectrum, put all that spectrum to use. It's really important; we call that 5G Evolution."
AT&T's 5G Evolution technologies include massive MIMO and 256 QAM, capabilities that Stephenson said are being added to the towers along with the FirstNet spectrum. Stephenson said that as AT&T adds these technologies to its cell sites, it will simultaneously be equipping every cell site for 5G. He reiterated a point AT&T and its competitors have made frequently in recent months: When standards-based 5G equipment hits the market, carriers will be able to roll out 5G via software upgrades. Stephenson also underscored the importance of fiber to 5G and to FirstNet.
"We can't talk about FirstNet without talking about our fiber deployment, without talking about our 5G deployment ... and without talking about carrier aggregation and standing up all the spectrum in our portfolio," he said. "When we won the FirstNet bid, we were given a charge by the U.S. government to extend our network, to densify our network, [to add] more cell site coverage throughout rural America, [and to] to harden our network, meaning making it resilient in storms."
Stephenson said mobile devices will need new capabilities in order to take full advantage of FirstNet. These devices will enable first responders to instantaneously pre-empt commercial network traffic on the AT&T network.
"You'll see us seeding different handsets throughout the country and the first responder network in the next year or two," Stephenson said. "All of these first responder communities and agencies contract differently ... no two agencies will be exactly the same."