AT&T ‘very comfortable’ with 5M unlimited data customers and traffic on LTE network

AT&T continues to advertise its unlimited data offer for DirecTV customers. Source: AT&T

LAS VEGAS – A top AT&T executive said the carrier is not concerned about the rapidly growing number of customers who are paying for its unlimited data service, and the additional network traffic those customers could create. AT&T in the second quarter said more than 5 million customers are now signed up to the unlimited data plans it offers to DirecTV subscribers.

“We feel very comfortable with the [network] usage. We feel very comfortable with what we’re seeing,” Glenn Lurie, president and CEO of AT&T’s Mobility and Consumer Operations, told FierceWireless on the sidelines of the CTIA Super Mobility trade show here last week. “And I think that comfort level is part of the reason why we just launched TV everywhere [through AT&T’s updated DirecTV video app]. So right now we feel great about our network.”

Lurie explained that AT&T’s John Donovan and the company’s network team have been using a wide variety of techniques and technologies, including network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), to ensure AT&T’s network can handle the increased load from its unlimited data offerings. AT&T earlier this year revived its unlimited data service, but only for those customers who also subscribe to its DirecTV pay-TV service, and now counts more than 5 million users of that service. And earlier this month the carrier also launched “Data Free TV” as part of an update to its DirecTV app, which exempts the cost of any data generated by video streams in the app for AT&T customers who are watching video on the operator’s wireless network.

“This is about our best customers,” Lurie added. “Our customers vote with their wallets around video and mobility coming together, and we’re seeing it. And it’s working incredibly well.”

Others appear to agree with Lurie’s assessment of AT&T’s network. “We believe AT&T is well-positioned to meet future demands, with a robust spectrum portfolio, well-paced small cell deployments, and technology developments that will further reduce network strain,” the analysts at Jefferies wrote in a recent research note on AT&T.

“We believe the company has ample tools to address on-going traffic requirements,” the Jefferies analysts wrote. “From a spectrum perspective, AT&T has more than 40MHz available to be deployed (AWS-3, WCS, 700MHz), which could add 50%+ more capacity to the LTE network in the coming years. The refarming of 2G/3G spectrum (currently ~60% of spectrum deployed) provides an additional source, and we expect AT&T to acquire spectrum in the Broadcaster auction currently underway. Though less aggressive than some of its peers, AT&T can also leverage small cell deployments for incremental capacity, while MIMO and carrier aggregation provide additional tools yet to be fully deployed.”

Indeed, AT&T CFO John Stephens said in August that the operator owns roughly 140 MHz of spectrum nationwide but is only using around 100 MHz of those holdings, which he said gives the carrier “a unique advantage.”

So does that mean AT&T doesn’t need any more spectrum? “Spectrum is always going to be a part of the conversation, for a few reasons: One, it’s capacity. The other is speed,” Lurie said. “You’re going to have to have spectrum, and you’re going to have to have additional spectrum than what we have today.”

Added Lurie: “Now we’re very happy with what happened: What the FCC did as far as high-band [spectrum]. There’s still work to be done, but at least we feel good about that order and what that’s going to do for us as we go towards small cell and millimeter wave and 5G – that’s terrific. But there’s always going to be work that needs to be done.”

The FCC recently moved forward with rules to release additional high-band spectrum for 5G uses.

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