AT&T lays out 5G pillars: Mobile 5G, fixed wireless, edge computing

AT&T turned on its mobile 5G network in parts of a dozen cities last year. (AT&T)

AT&T laid out its strategy this week for serving businesses with 5G, which makes a lot of sense given the number of enterprise customers it serves. The company counts 2,000 of the largest multinational companies as customers.

The strategy consists of three main pillars: mobile 5G, fixed wireless and edge computing.

Last month, AT&T announced it had turned on its mobile 5G network in parts of a dozen cities via connections to a portable hotspot and started offering service to “select businesses and consumers” for free for at least the first three months.

The operator plans on deploying a standards-based nationwide mobile 5G network in early 2020, and that network will allow for seamless handoffs between Wi-Fi, LTE and 5G—"virtually anywhere a business customer may go,” AT&T said.

According to AT&T, it’s been working with businesses in those 12 cities where it launched its mobile 5G network, and these businesses are helping pave the way for the “astounding impact” 5G will eventually provide nationwide. It also opened a space in its AT&T Foundry in Plano, Texas, devoted to prototyping solutions for industry verticals.

AT&T said its current fixed wireless offering, AT&T Wireless Broadband, lays the groundwork for its customers to upgrade to 5G when it’s available in their area. In the coming weeks, AT&T will offer multiple speed tiers up to 50 Mbps, building on its fiber distribution. Nationwide, more than 8 million business customer locations sit within 1,000 feet of AT&T’s fiber.

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As for edge computing, it’s expected to bring a “sea-change” in how businesses can use cellular data to improve their operations. Edge computing allows businesses to route application-specific traffic to where they need it and where it’s most effective—whether that’s in the cloud, the edge of AT&T’s network or on their premises.

AT&T Business currently offers AT&T Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC), which uses AT&T’s software-defined network to enable faster access to data processing. With MEC, customers can process low-latency, high-bandwidth applications closer to where they’re used to help create new outcomes and capabilities, which could mean new machine-learning opportunities and more connected devices, the operator said.

By way of example, AT&T said healthcare facilities could process and transfer data-intensive images between devices in the exam room and transfer that information to the doctor in near-real time. In a manufacturing scenario, manufacturers could process connected sensor data and robotic operations on a scale they couldn’t previously do.

“Healthcare systems use a lot of networking power, and 5G is going to be a turning point in how mobile networks are used in caring for patients,” said Shafiq Rab, M.D., senior vice president and chief information officer at Rush University Medical Center and the Rush System for Health, in a statement. “Using multi-access edge compute, the possibility of robotics and increased telehealth are two aspects of healthcare that we’re planning to explore. Ultimately, it’s about creating better outcomes for our patients. 5G combined with MEC will give us the foundation to provide patients better service, and increase the quality of care we provide.”