AT&T’s wireless communications network is in good shape, and thanks to its software-defined networking (SDN) capabilities, the carrier has been able to handle the 25 percent increase in traffic that has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Andre Fuetsch, AT&T CTO and president of AT&T Labs. He spoke with Jennifer Fritzsche, managing director and senior analyst at Wells Fargo Securities’ research division, during the firm’s virtual 5G wireless communications forum.
AT&T is close to having 75 percent of its network under software control, which is producing significant capital expense (capex) savings, according to Fuetsch. The disaggregation of hardware and software also allowed the carrier to move capacity around geographically to meet the changing traffic demands caused by the pandemic.
“The network has become so much more dynamic, and so you need more agility to respond,” Fuetsch said. “When we saw this surge in traffic within the first 10 days of the pandemic, we were able to quickly adapt to that because our core backbone, which is an Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) -based network, was able to reroute and move capacity where we needed it very quickly. And so that’s the power of having software in the network.”
Moreover, AT&T persists in its progress on key initiatives. Its 5G network will extend nationwide by the end of summer. Currently, it covers 160 million POPs across 327 markets. It uses millimeter-wave spectrum in 35 markets, offering 2 Gbps (2-gig) throughput speeds in Dallas. Fuetsch said that a handful of devices can connect to the 5G network, including smart phones and a MiFi puck or hotspot. That number is expected to grow to 15 by the end of the year, including an Apple 5G iPhone debut in the fall.
AT&T has reached 80 percent completion of its network for the First Responder Network (FirstNet) Authority. Fuetsch said the carrier is ahead schedule for its March 2021 coverage deadline. It is serving more than 12,000 first-responder agencies nationally, which represents more than 1.3 million connections.
Through its participation in the FCC’s Connect America Fund, AT&T has been deploying fixed wireless in rural America. It expects to offer fixed wireless voice and internet service to more than 1 million customers, across about 18 states, by the end of the year.
“So it’s working well. It’s really not a technology issue at all,” Fuetsch said. “It comes down to economics. And of course, this is why it fits well in the rural space, right, just because it becomes cost-prohibitive to physically build fiber-optic facilities out to [sparsely] populated areas, it’s very hard to make the economics work.”
Holistic Spectrum Strategy
Fuetsch said he could not comment on the AT&T’s position concerning the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, because of the upcoming radio-frequency spectrum auction. But he did say that the C-band, which will be auctioned late this year, will provide spectrum that is important to its portfolio.
“What’s unique, or I should say different, about the mid-band is it kind of has that good balance of propagation characteristics and speed,” Fuetsch said. “The other thing, too, I’d say about mid-band is when you look at 5G deployments outside of the United States, those have been predominantly focused in that spectrum space already. So the technology is very proven.”
In terms of AT&T’s current spectrum holdings, Fuetsch said the carrier is well positioned in the high band, 39 GHz and 24 GHz, and in low band, 700 MHz (the FirstNet spectrum). He described AT&T’s spectrum strategy as holistic, using low-band spectrum as well as millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum to serve enterprises as well as consumers.
“There is a lot going on in manufacturing, in health care, entertainment, as you can imagine, with augmented reality and mixed-reality experiences. It’s a very broad strategy that we’re going after with 5G,” he said.