AT&T expands 5G, opens 5G+ service to consumers

AT&T has expanded its low-band 5G service to 22 additional markets this week, and is opening up its millimeter wave 5G+ service to consumers for the first time with the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series.  

At the end of February AT&T’s 5G covered more than 80 million people, and is still on track to reach nationwide coverage by mid-year, said AT&T COO John Stankey, speaking Tuesday at a Morgan Stanley investor conference.

Most of that will come from lighting up new spectrum on 5G, Stankey added, noting that more spectrum is “probably the purest and best way for us to do that.”

A recent Opensignal report found carriers’ 5G speeds over low-band spectrum were unimpressive, including AT&T which clocked average download speeds of 59.3 Mbps. AT&T has been refarming its 800 MHz spectrum to get broader 5G coverage, and the report concluded that U.S. carriers are held back by the lack of new 5G mid-band spectrum needed to complement low- and high-band holdings.

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AT&T executives have previously touted the carrier’s spectrum position as more favorable than competitors thanks to low-band and mid-band holdings, though have also signaled interest in C-band spectrum opportunities as well.

“We stand today with a spectrum portfolio that we can run the plays we need to run on and be very deliberate around what we want to do in the forthcoming auctions and not feel like our back is against the wall on timing,” Stankey said Tuesday.

Since launching in December, AT&T’s low-band 5G flavor is now available in 80 markets, though Stankey acknowledged the difference in customer experience on sub-6 GHz 5G compared to current service “is not huge.”  

The latest 5G market additions include: Madera County, Mono County and Santa Rosa, California; Denver, Colorado.; Albany and Athens, Georgia; Worcester, Massachusetts; Beaverhead County and Lincoln County, Montana; Sussex County, New Jersey; Albany and Binghamton, New York; Cincinnati, Columbus, Hamilton, Ross County and Springfield, Ohio; Lancaster and State College, Pennsylvania; Provo, Utah; Madison County, Va. and Raleigh County, W. Va.

AT&T currently only offers one device, the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G, but starting Friday the Samsung Galaxy S20 series will be available. That includes the S20+ and S20 Ultra 5G, which is the first 5G smartphone capable of tapping both sub-6 GHz and millimeter 5G signals

This means consumers for the first time will be able to tap into AT&T’s millimeter wave 5G+ service, an AT&T spokesperson confirmed, which is available in limited parts of 35 cities. The 5G+ service was previously only available to select business customers.

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Still, 5G+ coverage is very limited, and while AT&T has said it’s seen peak speeds of more than 2 Gbps, it also notes service basically requires an unobstructed line of sight to the signal source.

When it comes to 5G+, Stankey pointed to AT&T’s decision to hold onto its fixed line infrastructure in key U.S. markets and the expansion of its fiber footprint.

“That infrastructure and the fiber base we have there will provide the foundation for us to move the 5G+ or millimeter wave deployments that we think take us to the next level,” he said.

In terms of moves to ensure adequate capacity for AT&T’s retail business, the operations chief indicated decisions, including spectrum auctions and acquisitions, and securing the FirstNet contract, among others, put the carrier in a position to once again actively pursue opportunities for its wholesale business, in contrast to the last several years.

In the few years prior to 2018, AT&T needed to “shed several hundred million dollars of wholesale traffic” to deal with capacity dynamics on the retail side, he said.

“We’re now in a place where we can continue the momentum in our retail business and, at the same time, add back in some of that wholesale traffic that we walked away from for a period of time. And we are very energized around finding those opportunities to do that.”

Stankey alluded to openness for potential wholesale opportunities with Dish Networks as the satellite TV provider enters as a new wireless competitor and works against buildout timelines for its own nationwide network.

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Dish’s Charlie Ergen is likely to take a different approach than traditional carriers, including what types of partners are needed to execute on the company’s network build requirements, he acknowledged. Although, Stankey indicated it’s hard to say for certain what path Ergen might take.  

During T-Mobile and Sprint’s merger trial, knowledge of “confidential and creative strategic partnerships” Dish was planning emerged, though which entities were involved was never disclosed. Speculation has covered big tech players like Google, Microsoft or Amazon, as well as cable operators or device makers.   

Stankey suggested that Dish’s entry could create a new dynamic in the business than traditionally seen. For example, a network that a range of users put capacity on, or building infrastructure where Dish owns and operates portions, while some is run through other partners.

“I think we are mindful of that and open to all those things, and we'll continue to be responsive to that as it evolves,” he said.