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Does AT&T Live in the Real World?

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor and IEEE Senior Member

A few days ago, AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson said that China is not beating the United States on 5G — yet. According to Stephenson, Chinese 5G networks remain in trial stages, he said at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. This, perhaps, to allay the hand-wringing from the Trump administration, and policymakers, about America’s ability to compete with China in the 5G space.

However, a few days before that, China announced that The Hongqiao Railway Station in Shanghai China, one of Asia’s biggest traffic hubs, has launched a 5G network using Huawei’s 5G digital indoor system that will allow passengers to experience data speeds, up to, 100 times faster compared to LTE. Hmmm… we must not be reading the same news bytes or drinking the same Kool-Aid.

There is some interesting reading in all of this.

AT&T claims to have 5G up and running in dozen markets. However, it seems like an empty claim without phones. To be fair, China does not have any phones either. So, will the winner of the 5G race be the one who has phones first? That could be another one of the many bogus claims to have won the 5G race.

Essentially, without handsets, systems are just taking up space, here, there, anywhere. Stephenson claiming we are ahead, behind, even, whatever, is really just smack talk against China.

What makes all of this even worse is AT&T’s claims to have been the first in 5G late last year. It was a hollow victory, if it was a victory at all. As well, they tried to pass off some chicanery in 4G as 5G (5GE and 5G+). At this point, I have a hard time believing anything they say as being other than embellishment. This latest statement by Stephenson takes even more credibility away.

Why does this matter? Because this is one of the big problems facing the wireless industry, today, and why so many consumers are unaffected by 5G. Misstatements, embellishments, ignorant statements, or even outright lies make it that much harder to buy into the technology and its benefits. A chief executive should know better.

There are warning signs about all this that are beginning to bubble up. However, it seems that the companies on the edge of wireless do not believe the signs or are just pushing ahead for fear of losing momentum.  Lately, there has been noise around companies taking a hard look at their outlays for 5G in light of some of the economic data that has surfaced.

For example, while only one segment of 5G, smartphones are seeing some serious speedbumps, relatively speaking. 2018 saw, for the first time, negative growth in smartphones. Granted, the percentage was small, but the implications are huge. As well, the introduction of the over $1000 phones did not receive the warm welcome that was predicted.

There are other signs, as well. Sluggish government action to provide the necessary framework to advance 5G as quickly as some deem necessary, particularly at the local levels where permits are often slow in coming.

Then there is the indoor deployment segment. Carriers and others still have no real methodology to deploy indoor 5G networks that can meet the needs of users in crowded, high-density areas where thousands of people, simultaneously, want to use the network.

Sports venues have provided some data for such environments but that may, or may not, play forward to 5G networks without hiccups. The theory is there, but the use cases have yet to be implemented. Moreover, as one knows, all too well, there is that adage, which says anything that can go wrong, will.

Next, take the U.S.’s stance on Huawei. It has failed in its attempts to derail Huawei, worldwide. Just today, across the Atlantic, Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for Digital Single Market, is suggesting the Commission resist an outright ban across the bloc.

For the United States, this is pretty much the worst-case scenario. Our political influence and economic power has been undermined and the United States’ belief in its own influence has clearly been over-estimated. That is just another nail in the U.S. Huawei-ban coffin.

Whether we like it or not, Huawei is the leading company producing the necessary 5G network components. The U.S. government’s ban does not bode well for unimpeded 5G progress here, even with other vendors stepping in to fill the void.

Since nobody else is on board with the Huawei ban, they are all moving forward without being hamstrung, widening the 5G gap between the United States and the rest of the world. I have discussed the Huawei situation in past missives so I will not go into it here.

Now, circling back to the types of statements made by industry leaders. The fact is that 5G is far from a done deal, anywhere. There are chinks in the armor. It is fraught with trials and tribulations – some technical, some economic, some political, some geographic, some financial, some perceived, and some imagined. Pile on top of that the huge pool of embellishment, almost truths, wishful thinking, Kool-Aid drinking, and the cold, hard truth is that we have a long hard road ahead before we can breathe a sigh of relief and 5G hits its stride.

Statements like those by Stephenson are, IMHO, just embarrassing.

AT&T’s FirstNet Build Months Ahead of Schedule

Less than a year into the official Band 14 build, AT&T has added more than 50,000+ square miles to the nationwide LTE network footprint of FirstNet. AT&T and FirstNet are months ahead of schedule with already meeting 40 percent of the total rural and urban coverage targets the end of this year. The capacity of the network has been increase by 50 percent since the end of 2017 while simultaneously laying the foundation for a 5G future.

The added LTE coverage is a result of the ongoing network build initiatives to expand and enhance connectivity for consumers and first responders in both urban and rural areas on both indoor and outdoor sites.

Some examples of rural areas that are underway and currently benefitting from the network build include: the Black Hills of South Dakota, where nearly half a million people gather for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the farming communities of Tulare County, California, and tribal lands within the Chickasaw Nation in south-central Oklahoma.

In areas where coverage already exists, FirstNet is making sure first responders have the capacity they need to get the job done without interruption. Now, urban and suburban centers in markets like Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, among others, are getting a Band 14 boost.

In total, AT&T and FirstNet have deployed Band 14 spectrum in more than 500 markets further increasing the platform’s coverage and capacity across the country. The deployment touches 425,000 subscribers, which is a 60 percent increase in the number of subscribers since the end of October 2018, spanning more than 5,250 public safety agencies on FirstNet to date.

5G Bragging Rights? Perhaps, But Not Much Else

By Ernest Worthman, AWT Executive Editor and IEEE Senior Member

In one of my recent columns I had questioned what the prize would be for being the “first” with 5G. I had noted that being first had no real prize that comes with it, other than, perhaps, bragging rights.

Well, it seems that just happened. The last couple of weeks has been rich in media hype around AT&T’s end of the year launch of their 5G services. According to one media source, on the 21st of December AT&T will become the first telco, in America, to cross the finish line. And win the “prize.” AT&T claims to have a mobile 5G service over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network.

From another media site, outside of wireless, the following was penned “Bragging rights are important. AT&T will now, and until the end of time, be the first mobile 5G network in the United States.” But about all it can do is put that on billboards and in marketing promos. There is nothing attached to it that can be taken to the bank.

In reality, this is a marginal network spanning only 100 MHz channels. It uses the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. It is only available within AT&T’s coverage areas and is a tiny coverage bubble. In AT&T’s own words the “initial launch starts small and will be limited,” but that “customers will see enhancements in coverage, speeds, and devices.”

If you think I am hard on the 5G hype, you should read what Toms Guide, a tech rag that I have read for years, said about it. While they are not in the wireless space, per se, they are a pretty savvy computer technology group. Their headline was “Carrier peddles fake 5G. AT&T Plans to Put 5G Labels On Non-5G Phones.” Well, butter my rump and call me a biscuit. Talk about saying it like it is!

This takes its place along “5G E”, another sleight of hand 5G label, which is being rolled out by them, as well. 5G E leverages 4G LTE advanced capabilities to emulate near 5G with technological upgrades such as carrier aggregation, 4 x 4 MIMO, LAA, and 256-QAM. While these enhancements do improve network performance and meet some of the 5G specs, this platform is not fully 5G.

Furthermore, it seems they taking embellishment to the max in the cities where they are launching 5G service platforms. It is replacing some 4G phones’ on-screen “LTE” indicators with “5G E” logos — a marketing ploy to, further, blur the lines between 4G and 5G service for customers.

This is an interesting approach. One has to beg the question, if 5G E, and similar fake 5G offerings from other carriers, work well, might they be shooting themselves in the foot? What if the end user is happy with this level of performance? Perhaps, when the real 5G is up and running, they may not be all that eager to jump on the platform.

While it MAY be the first “5G” network, it reminds me of my engineering days when we were under pressure to develop something against a set of specs and get it out there, no matter how marginal the product was. This network is simply an experiment that barely meets the 5G designation. To differentiate the service at mmWave, AT&T has added a “+” to the 5G – 5G+ is what it will be designated. That is also where the Netgear 5G Mobile Hotspot will operate.

One can argue that it has to start somewhere. I am all in on that. What I am not all in on is the ridiculous hype that surrounds it. I would have much more respect for these carriers if they came out and said it like it is. In this situation, the AT&T service is, simply, a limited initial 5G jump off service as a first step with no phones. Does that really qualify as a first?

One thing worth mentioning is the pricing philosophy. Unlike what many manufacturers do when they release a new generation or line and use premium pricing, for this network it is approaching it as a loss-leader with realistic up-front pricing. That is the smart approach, considering the unproven benefits for the time being.

For a few months it will be free. Then the buzz is that, in early 2019, list price for the hotspot will be $499. 15 GB of 5G data will cost $70 per month. There is no price yet for phones or other add-on services. Undoubtedly, there will be some uber-geeks, those with more money than sense, and the bragging rights community that will purchase this service. But for the rest of us, it is a “meh.”

What I am hoping now is that, as 2018 draws to a close, the claim of 5G being live has been made and the bragging rights awarded. Whew, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The 2018 claim has been staked. Let us hope 2019 pulls back on the hype, and other the craziness, and we can all get down to the business getting 5G out there, practically and reliably.

Happy new year, everyone! And wishing you all the best for 2019!

AT&T Fiber Now Available in 12 Additional Metros

AT&T has launched fiber networks in a dozen more cities across the United States. In the last year, it added over 3 million locations, reaching more than 10 million locations across 84 metros nationwide where it offers its ultra-fast, low-latency internet service powered by AT&T Fiber. The carrier plans to reach at least 14 million locations by mid-2019.

“We have millions of miles of fiber and this expansion furthers our lead as the largest provider of fiber across the 21 states where we offer home internet service,” the carrier said in a press release.

An ultra-fast internet connection powered by AT&T Fiber lets users quickly access and stream the latest online movies, music and games, so they can telecommute, video-conference, upload and download photos and videos, and connect faster to the cloud. It also lays the groundwork for next generation wireless services.

“The success of mobile 5G relies on a quality fiber connection to the wireless towers or small cells, which then translate the fiber connection into an ultra-fast wireless signal for customers. By putting fiber at the core of our wired and wireless networks, we’ve been laying the foundation for our 5G wireless connectivity,” the carrier said.


Tillman Has Built `Hundreds’ of Towers for AT&T

AT&T is making good on its promise to bypass the established cell tower companies to drive down costs. After signing an agreement with carrier last year, Tillman Infrastructure has built “hundreds” of new macro cell towers for lease with “hundreds” more on the way.

“Our work with Tillman Infrastructure exemplifies our future model for the cell tower industry,” said Susan Johnson, executive vice president– Global Connections and Supply Chain, AT&T. “We’re committed to working with vendors who offer a sustainable cost model while also delivering best in class cycle times and tower construction.”

The Tillman tower build is also part of AT&T’s overall rollout of FirstNet and plan to deploy mobile 5G.

“Tillman is proud of the progress we’ve made with AT&T, in such a short time,” said Bill Hague, CEO of Tillman Infrastructure. “We’re bringing a real alternative to the tower infrastructure space for all mobile operators, with competitive pricing and flexible lease terms that accommodate sustainable growth. We will continue to work aggressively to construct and operate thousands of additional sites, while improving capacity and coverage for the entire country, especially in underserved rural areas.”

Some of the new towers will add coverage for AT&T but others will serve as an “opportunity for AT&T to relocate equipment” from its current towers as the carriers creates a “a diverse community of suppliers and tower companies.”

One tower owner was less than impressed with the AT&T/Tillman announcement, suspecting that more of the towers are in white spaces than over building the big towercos with high-rent relocations.  “Success in the latter will be limited and largely only in areas with limited or no zoning and I still don’t think the big towercos will blink at all,” they said.