AT&T's Elbaz says the carrier plans to transition FirstNet to 5G

AT&T’s SVP of Wireless Technology Igal Elbaz says that according to some speed tests, AT&T’s FirstNet first responder’s network is faster than any other commercial network in the United States. FirstNet is an LTE network. But speaking on a FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week panel today, Elbaz said, “We’re in the process of updating FirstNet to 5G.” 

Igal Elbaz
Igal Elbaz

FirstNet has been a boon for AT&T, not only in terms of getting the government’s contract to build the dedicated public safety communications network, but also as a way to more cost-efficiently update its macro towers for 5G.

AT&T started building FirstNet about two years ago, expanding coverage with Band 14 spectrum alongside its own 4G LTE upgrades. More than 12,000 public safety agencies and organizations now subscribe to the FirstNet platform, representing more than 1.3 million connections.

“We are already close to one year ahead of schedule,” said Elbaz, adding that every time AT&T sends someone to climb a macro tower for FirstNet, that person can also make upgrades to the LTE network for things such as 256 QAM, 4x4 MIMO and carrier aggregation.

Carrier aggregation is a technology that enables wireless operators to combine both contiguous and non-contiguous spectrum blocks as well as spectrum blocks from other bands in order to increase the data speeds to the end user.

The tower climber can also upgrade hardware to 5G New Radio.

In June at its quarterly meeting, the First Responder Network Authority Board approved $218 million for strategic investments that will include initial core network upgrades as the first phase of moving FirstNet to 5G.

RELATED: FirstNet Board greenlights $218M for core network upgrades, more deployable assets

5G is an ecosystem

Elbaz said that 5G goes beyond just updates to the radio access network (RAN). There also have to be upgrades to the core network, and the entire network architecture is more distributed with compute and storage at the edge. “I look at this holistically,” he said. “This is not just a network transformation. It’s actually a paradigm shift.”

He said AT&T’s been on this journey toward 5G for five to six years, starting with the implementation of software-defined networking and moving to the use of mmWave spectrum. Elbaz clarified that AT&T uses 39 GHz spectrum for its mmWave deployments.

AT&T has said that it will deploy 5G on mmWave spectrum primarily for high-density areas such as shopping malls, sports arenas, and the like. But now, with Covid, people aren’t getting together at these types of venues. Asked how Covid is affecting AT&T’s mmWave strategy, Elbaz said, “The build has continued as planned. We hope that sometime soon things will come back to be as usual and people will go to venues and stadiums and shopping malls because the build is continuing.”

Another aspect of 5G is upgrading the core network to standalone (SA) 5G and making that work in conjunction with 5G New Radio at the towers. “AT&T 5G SA is yet another critical enabler that’s going to get introduced in the coming months,” said Elbaz. “5G SA allows you to have a real end-to-end 5G, cloud native architecture. We’re going to start to deploy it toward the end of the year.”

RELATED: ‘Real’ 5G relies on 5G NR, Standalone architecture: Special Report

SA is not something that happens all at once. Elbaz said each operator is developing its own strategy to implement SA 5G, but it will be a “phased approach” over time. “In order for this to really scale, for example the ability to do carrier aggregation on FDD [Frequency Division Duplexing] spectrum, that really comes in 2021, so this is where we really think that’s going to start to scale,” he said.

Just yesterday, AT&T announced that its 5G network is now available nationwide, covering 205 million consumers with an expansion into 40 new markets. “We’re covering 179 million pops* in 355 markets,” said Elbaz.

Finally, Elbaz was asked his opinion about C-BAND and CBRS spectrum and whether he thought the new mid-band spectrum would be valuable for carriers in the U.S. AT&T is one of the qualified bidders in the FCC’s CBRS auction, which got underway yesterday. Elbaz said AT&T always takes a close look at any new spectrum opportunities.

In terms of C-BAND, he said it provides opportunities, “probably on the macro layer supporting both coverage and capacity.”

*Editor's Note: After this interview was conducted, AT&T announced it now covers 205 million pops.