AT&T ready to roll on 39 GHz following FCC license application approval

The FCC last week granted long-form spectrum license applications for most Auction 103 winners, meaning AT&T and others can start to put their 5G millimeter wave winnings to use right away without special permission.   

At the FCC’s third 5G auction, AT&T spent $1.2 billion, net of its vouchers to boost its 39 GHz holdings to 786 MHz. That’s a 102% increase from the 379 MHz AT&T it previously held, but relinquished in exchange for vouchers (as did Verizon) to put toward licenses in the reconfigured band.

Combined with 24 GHz holdings, AT&T has 1,040 MHz on average nationwide of millimeter wave spectrum.

AT&T already deployed 39 GHz on a limited basis for its 5G+ service and has been testing the band operating under special temporary authority (STAs) from the FCC. In early June the carrier filed to test 37/39 GHz in Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) including San Diego, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, as well as Dallas and Waco in Texas. Following the auction, AT&T and other carriers needed to seek temporary permission as they awaited approval of their respective long-form applications.

RELATED: AT&T pursues new STA for 37/39 GHz tests

With that out of the way, AT&T can use the awarded spectrum immediately. In terms of a timeline for commercial deployments of its new 39 GHz spectrum, an AT&T spokesperson told FierceWireless the carrier will “immediately covert all of our STA usage to the awarded spectrum and will continue expanding with additional spectrum as the eco-system is ready to support.” It plans to continue testing the ecosystem in preparation for launch, the spokesperson added. 

That 39 GHz ecosystem support is expected in 2020, as both infrastructure and devices are already hardware capable. Once the software portion is ready between both the device and network, AT&T can start performing software upgrades to enable the spectrum to be used.

RELATED: Industry Voices—Blaber: mmWave addresses growth, change in mobile traffic

AT&T launched its "5G +" network using mmWave in late 2018, but didn’t open access up to consumers until March 2020 with Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus handsets that support both sub-6 GHz and mmWave.

Testing that month in New York City by PCMag, showed AT&T’s mmWave network performed well, with average download speeds of 540 Mbps and maximum of 1.2 Gbps.

Converting existing deployments to new channels

AT&T’s channel selection during the assignment phase of Auction 103 should make coverting less difficult, according to Brian Goemmer, president and founder of AllNet Insights & Analytics.

“AT&T should have a fairly easy conversion of their existing 39 GHz deployments over to the new channels,” said Goemmer.

Earlier STAs requested by Verizon and AT&T for PEA markets were typically for 400 MHz blocks of spectrum, Goemmer noted, though sometimes less in smaller markets such as Oklahoma City, where they only sought 200 MHz. The STAs resided in what’s now considered the “New 39 GHz band.” The reconfigured 39 GHz band holds all of the spectrum 37/39 GHz spectrum AT&T acquired at the auction and lines up with original 39 GHz band the carriers occupied, Goemmer explained. So it’s likely the equipment AT&T’s already been deployed and customer handsets can all continue to operate.

In the recent STA request for testing in the band, AT&T said it was using base station transmitters from its 5G suppliers including Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, with device prototypes from Qualcomm, Samsung, and others.

“Interestingly, Verizon opted to take their auction assignments in the M band (upper 37 GHz) while AT&T took theirs in the N band (original 39 GHz),” Goemmer said.  

At Auction 103 Verizon spent $1.6 billion for licenses in the 37/39 GHz band. When combined with 28 GHz, Verizon has 2,024 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum.

RELATED: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile top spenders at mmWave 5G spectrum auction

For Verizon’s transition from the 39 GHz band, Goemmer thinks installed equipment would need to be modified to operate in the 37 GHz band because of the cutting-edge nature of gear that likely only supported 39 GHz frequencies. Both the 37 GHz and 39 GHz are in the n260 band class that devices and equipment are being designed for, but early on tend to be very frequency specific and expand to broader support later on, he said, though acknowledged there are many nuances. Still, Verizon’s 5G consumer rollouts have been focused squarely on the 28 GHz band, and as Goemmer noted, 39 GHz appeared to be much more about testing for the carrier than deployment. 

“I would expect fairly rapid network equipment availability for both the 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands since the NR 260 band class covering both the 37 and 39 GHz bands has been established for a while,” Goemmer noted, reversing his view from last fall on 37 GHz that estimated an 18-month time frame from the end of the auction.

He believes the 18-month ecosystem cycle still applies to the 24 GHz band, as well as 47 GHz. T-Mobile and AT&T both have significant 24 GHz holdings, and T-Mobile and Sprint also scooped up 47 GHz licenses at Auction 103.

RELATED: T-Mobile, Sprint, Dish control 99% of 47 GHz spectrum

Before its application was approved last week, T-Mobile filed STAs for 39 GHz tests in three markets to get a jump start on its new mmWave holdings. At Auction 103 T-Mobile submitted more than $931 million in gross bids covering nearly 400 PEAs. T-Mobile’s mmWave position is now about 1,250 MHz.

T-Mobile didn’t respond to questions from Fierce and Verizon declined to comment on plans or timelines for the newly awarded spectrum. Still, it appears the license application approval came at a good time. On Tuesday, the FCC adopted a 5G infrastructure order to streamline local rules for upgrading existing sites for 5G networks. Verizon applauded the move.

“In the 2012 Spectrum Act, Congress mandated streamlined review by state and local governments of modifications to existing wireless facilities, and today's order will further that policy,” said Will Johnson, Verizon Senior Vice President, Federal Regulatory and Legal Affairs, in a statement. “The common sense clarifications adopted today help ensure that providers quickly upgrade their existing facilities to 5G, hastening consumers' access to next-generation wireless services."    

In a report this week by MoffettNathanson, analysts led by Craig Moffett said the COVID-19 crisis likely impacts the value proposition of 5G for Verizon due to its overreliance on millimeter wave spectrum at a time when people aren’t gathering in places like stadiums and airports. However, others think mmWave has a clear opportunity.

RELATED: AT&T touts mmWave spectrum gains, but Verizon still has nearly 2X as much

Geoff Blaber, vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insights, in a recent FierceWireless column pointed to the projected increase in mobile data traffic over 5G.

“Capacity alone is a justification for millimeter wave networks and mounting global support is evidence of that,” wrote Blaber. “Competition will propel further investment as operators seek to avoid being left behind.”

As of Friday, the FCC had granted 19 out of 29 Auction 103 long-form applications, and the staff is actively reviewing the 10 remaining. When those will be approved is still unclear.