AT&T plans to get its feet wet in the still murky 5G pond this year, joining arch-competitor Verizon and operators around the world in conducting early trials of the technology. AT&T announced its 5G roadmap on Thursday, detailing plans to test out ultra-high-speed networks in the millimeter wavelengths this year in both the lab and in the wild. The first city on its list will be Texas state capital Austin, conveniently located down the expressway from AT&T’s corporate HQ in Dallas.
AT&T, however, appears to be taking a much more conservative stance on 5G unlike its competitor Verizon. Instead of promising an overnight revolution in mobile data, AT&T says its initial 5G focus will be on fixed wireless broadband – in essence using 5G connections as an alternative to cable, DSL and new fiber broadband links. For that reason, Austin may not only be a convenient choice for AT&T but also a strategic choice. Austin is a Google Fiber city, and a handful of its residents are starting to get their first taste of a 1 Gbps home broadband connection. AT&T is already experimenting with its own fiber-to-the-home service called GigaPower, but it may now be toying with the idea that it could provide the same kind of gigabit service without digging any trenches and stringing any cables.
Trialing 5G as a fixed broadband technology is smart move by AT&T because it insulates it from the standards process. 5G standards are still years away from being final, so whatever so-called 5G networks operators deploy this year and next will use proprietary technology. That means there won’t be smartphones and devices that can connect to them, and the networks themselves will be isolated from one another. That’s not to say that these early trials won’t be important from proving the merits of future 5G technologies, but it’s almost impossible to build a commercially viable mobile network without standards. The same can’t be said for a fixed wireless network. The residential broadband network AT&T builds only needs to connect with one kind of device, the modem installed in the customer’s home.
Of course, 5G will be much more than a means to faster home internet. The researchers developing 5G standards envision it providing much faster speeds to our phones, tablets, cars, laptops and cars. It could also supply the low latency necessary to power whole new categories of applications and the low power links necessary to connect the internet of things. It’s going to be a while before all of those technologies become reality, but one of the first steps along the road will be enhancements to our current LTE and LTE-Advanced technologies. Those upgrades could boost today’s 4G performance considerably.
Faster mobile speeds have to be high on AT&T’s and every other U.S. operator’s mind, considering how far behind the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in LTE technology. According to OpenSignal’s recently released USA State of Mobile Networks report, average 4G speed in the U.S. is 9.9 Mbps in the fourth quarter, far below the global of 13.5 Mbps.