AT&T drums C-band progress, tees up 5G+ branding

AT&T is getting prepped to deploy C-band spectrum later this year and teeing up the mid-band frequencies to join millimeter wave services under the 5G+ moniker.

In a Tuesday update on C-band progress, AT&T’s Mo Katibeh, SVP of network infrastructure and build, said that the carrier is aggressively testing and preparing the network for new spectrum.

“And how will you know if you are in an area with the faster C-Band or mmWave 5G?” wrote Katibeh. “You’ll see an indicator that simply shows ‘5G+’.”

Currently 5G+ denotes service from AT&T using high-band mmWave spectrum – where deployments have been limited largely to venues, sporting arenas, as well as airports. It’s available in parts of 39 cities and 20 venues.

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The carrier’s nationwide offering using low-band spectrum is simply dubbed 5G. The low-band version of 5G from AT&T (as well as other carriers) has broader coverage – now 250 million people- but hasn’t shown significant improvements over 4G LTE service. All of the major carriers appear inclined to differentiate newer mid-band airwaves which are dedicated for 5G and offer more capacity and bandwidth. Verizon’s including C-band with its mmWave offering under the 5G “Ultra Wideband” branding vs 5G Nationwide. T-Mobile has distinguished its 5G service running on mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum as “Ultra Capacity 5G” versus “Extended Range” for low-band 600 MHz. Google’s new Pixel 6 lineup is the first Android smartphone that will show the T-Mobile Ultra Capacity icon (the iPhone 12 and 13 show it as well).

AT&T also spent billions to acquire C-band, which falls between 3.7 GHz-3.98 GHz as upper mid-band spectrum that’s viewed as a sweet spot for the mix of coverage and capacity. The carrier was the second largest winner at the FCC C-band auction earlier this year, securing 80-megahertz for around $23.4 billion – not including incentive payments and costs related to satellite operators clearing the band.

About 40-megahertz falls in the first batch that’s on an earlier clearing timeline and expected to be ready for use in December.

Katibeh’s post talked up how C-band is going to boost the 5G+ experience, including immersive fan and sporting experiences, augmented reality reading experiences (something AT&T showed off at an event with partner Bookful at a 5G event this summer) and of course, speedier uploads and downloads

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“Over the last eight months our teams have been in the field aggressively testing and working to build the network to put the spectrum in use to enhance your experience so you can enjoy things like augmented and virtual reality,” wrote Katibeh. “That means, we’re pumping up the entire ecosystem as we prepare for our planned December launch.”

Katibeh also pointed to devices, saying the carrier aims to have multiple devices available by the time C-band is lit up in just a few months.

The first 100-megahertz tranche (which Verizon has 60-megahertz of), focuses on top U.S. markets. By the end of 2022, AT&T aims to cover 70-75 million people with C-band and bump that up to 200 million by 2023.

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AT&T has been working to close its 5G mid-band spectrum deficit versus T-Mobile and Verizon. It’s a qualified bidder in the ongoing 3.45 GHz auction, where there’s wide expectation the carrier will look to snag a full 40-megahertz. Bids appeared ready to surpass the $20 billion mark as of Tuesday morning.

“AT&T needed more spectrum, and, we presume, they will now get it,” wrote MoffettNathanson analysts in an October 21 note to investors. “Better yet, they will likely have gotten it reasonably cheaply. Previously, we assumed they would buy 40 MHz for $10B, but it now looks like they will leave having paid materially less than that.”

Still, the firm questioned what AT&T’s 5G strategy will be, as reiterated its view that the carrier appears “destined for third place in a three-horse race for network superiority” even with the addition of C-band and expected 3.45 GHz spectrum.

The firm pointed out that in 2021 AT&T will cover 50 million people with mid-band spectrum depth of 40 megahertz, compared to Verizon at 100 million people and 60-megahertz and T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz covering 200 million people with 100-megahertz. By 2023 that gap narrows between AT&T and Verizon (which plans to cover 175 million people) but still behind T-Mobile which has plans for 285 million people and mid-band spectrum depth of 175-megahertz, according to Moffett.

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AT&T signed 5-year network deals for C-band gear from Ericsson and Nokia. Verizon has also tapped Ericsson but opted for South Korea’s Samsung over Nokia to supply its 5G C-band expansion.

As for branding and smartphone connectivity icons, AT&T is probably well remembered for its controversial 5G Evolution branding and ‘5GE’ connectivity icon, which debuted in 2017 and 2019, respectively, but referred to upgraded portions of the carrier’s 4G LTE network. It got blow back and criticism from competitors, consumers and the media over potentially muddling benefits of 5G and promoting “fake 5G”. Sprint even filed a lawsuit, which was settled and saw AT&T continue to use the connectivity icon. At the time, however, analyst Walter Piecyk, now with LightShed Partners, called out how if done correctly, AT&T’s deployment of 60 MHz of new LTE spectrum should mean subscribers would see significantly better performance and data speeds where the 5GE icon showed up.  

Still, AT&T agreed to stop using its “5G Evolution” marketing message last year after an unsuccessful appeal to an advertising industry review board last year.  

With 5G deployments now underway in earnest, the next round of marketing and branding battles has been in full swing as carriers look to differentiate service – with C-band looking poised to star in the next wave.

Corrected to reflect the Pixel 6 is the first Android phone to show T-Mobile's Ultra Capacity icon and to add mention of iPhone support.