What’s the deal with AT&T and Samsung?

This coming week will see the return of in-person industry trade shows, with Mobile World Congress 2022 in Las Vegas and the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) convention in Portland, Oregon.

These typically are times for vendors to hawk their wares in front of operators, whether it be in their booths or in closed-door meetings. But the actual evaluation of equipment gets done in labs and fields, where operators put the gear through exhaustive paces.

That’s why it was notable that during a recent media tour of AT&T Labs in Redmond, Washington, no Samsung equipment was seen, raising questions about AT&T’s use of Samsung as a third vendor in its network, alongside Ericsson and Nokia.

Here’s what the company said in response to Fierce’s inquiries: “As part of our open RAN journey, we continue to watch and evaluate the architecture’s evolution, maturity of interfaces and our long-term vendor strategy. Open RAN testing with both Samsung and Ericsson was part of early trials. We make vendor decisions based on what would be the most operationally efficient and cost-effective for AT&T while delivering the best results for the network and our customers.”

The statement concluded: “We continue to work with Samsung across AT&T, including in helping us to be the first to deliver public safety a nationwide push-to-talk solution built to mission-critical standards.”

That vaguely explains some of what Samsung is doing with AT&T, including by way of  Samsung’s Mission Critical Push-to-Anything (MCPTX) network technology that AT&T disclosed in 2021.

Asked exactly what Samsung is currently supplying to AT&T, the vendor declined to say. “We defer to mobile operators on questions about their networks,” a representative told Fierce.

Back in 2018, Samsung was identified as one of three vendors for AT&T’s 5G network, as well as a supplier of CBRS gear for AT&T.

AT&T previously acknowledged its work with Samsung in the open RAN space. In 2020, the two announced a successful data session using the enhanced Common Public Radio Interface (eCPRI). AT&T hosted that demonstration using mmWave radio equipment in the 5G Lab in Redmond.

The open RAN movement is all about switching things up in wireless so operators aren’t tied to one vendor. That allows for more choices, better prices and presumably quality improvements as well.

Stefan Pongratz, analyst at Dell’Oro Group, said he believes Samsung’s AT&T involvement so far is mostly confined to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) for fixed wireless access (FWA) and millimeter wave (mmWave), so they’re not part of the broader sub-6 GHz macro network.

Industry analyst Earl Lum, president of EJL Wireless Research, echoed that sentiment and said it’s quite possible it doesn’t matter that much for Samsung.

The big fish that Samsung continues to focus on, he said, is Verizon, with whom it signed a $6 billion network deal in 2020. In the U.S., Samsung also has 5G network deals with Dish Network and UScellular.

“Their timeline for things is extremely long,” he said of South Korea-based Samsung, whose North American network division is based in the Dallas area. “They’re not looking at it on a quarter-to-quarter basis. At this point, I think their focus is making sure they’re doing a great job at Verizon. That is the gold standard for the world.”

The one it hasn’t hitched up with, beyond a trial stage, is T-Mobile.

Samsung was a vendor with Sprint, but after it merged with T-Mobile, it might have had a problem because it didn’t have legacy equipment that would work with or be backwards compatible with 3G at the time, according to Lum.

“I think only being current and forward looking was an impediment” in terms of Samsung getting into an existing network that still supported legacy technologies, he said.

Nokia is another story. Verizon awarded the $6 billion contract to Samsung – not Nokia – for 5G network gear in 2020 and Nokia was nowhere to be seen in Verizon’s 2021 announcement about C-band vendors.

For a vendor, getting kicked out of a carrier’s network is the worst thing that can happen, and that’s basically what occurred when Verizon picked Samsung instead of Nokia in 2020, Lum said.

T-Mobile has been dealing with whatever has been going on at Nokia for the past several years and sticking with them in the hopes that “Nokia gets their act together,” he said, noting he thinks there are still issues with Nokia’s product portfolio.

T-Mobile and AT&T are kind of in the same boat when it comes to Nokia in that they need Nokia to step up and deliver something on par with Ericsson, Lum said. The latest Massive MIMO product he saw released by Nokia at the beginning of this year, a C-band radio, was extremely deficient, in his opinion. Whether there’s a fix for that is difficult to say.

Lum said he doesn’t think it was good for so many carriers to kick Huawei out of their networks because Huawei forced everyone else to create better products. Now that they’re essentially banned from networks outside China, it’s basically a duopoly, “and both those vendors know it, so they don’t need to drop their price or be as competitive on pricing and I think that’s not good for the overall industry.”

Given where T-Mobile is in its 5G network rollout – far ahead of its two biggest rivals and completing the decommissioning of the Sprint network – it stands to reason it wouldn’t want to complicate matters by bringing in a third vendor when its legacy gear is Ericsson and Nokia. 

As for Samsung’s aspirations to add more U.S. carrier business to its roster, it’s a relatively small unit in the conglomerate that is Samsung and can afford some degree of patience. “They’re in no hurry,” Lum said. “They’re looking at it years down the road.”