AT&T expects major 5G handset upgrade cycle to start in 2020, exec says

AT&T has pledged to start deploying sub-6 GHz 5G before year’s end, but SVP of wireless technology Igal Elbaz said Tuesday that the carrier expects 2020 to be the start of a major handset upgrade cycle, as chipsets supporting both millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz make their way into smartphones.

“We really believe we’re going to see a big refreshment [of devices],” starting next year, said Elbaz, speaking at the Morgan Stanley European, Media & Telecom Conference.

At the start of his talk, Elbaz reiterated AT&T’s earlier guidance of expected revenue growth of 1-2% CAGR over the next three years; that will partly come from equipment sales as consumers upgrade to tap new capabilities with 5G devices.

Most 5G devices in the U.S. support high-band millimeter wave spectrum including the Galaxy S10 5G and Netgear Nighthawk mobile hotspot from AT&T, which are still only offered to business customers.

AT&T plans to offer a 5G device with support for sub-6 GHz frequency bands later this year, coinciding with its 5G coverage rollout. It’s 2020 when 5G device adoption is going to “start ramping up” though, with chipset support for different flavors of 5G across sub-6 GHz and mmWave and capabilities of both standalone and nonstandalone (NSA) networks, he noted.

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“This is where you’re really going to start seeing the device portfolio starting to take off,” Elbaz said, adding that there will also be a variety of price points for 5G smartphones, in contrast to the high-end handsets available now.

“I think people are excited and may be holding to see when the 5G devices are going to come with those new capabilities, and we’re pretty confident this is what we’re going to see in the marketplace,” he noted.

His comments echo forecasts, including a September outlook from Gartner that projected 5G will result in the smartphone market returning to growth at 2.9% in 2020, after a worldwide decline of 3.7% in 2019. The firm also expects the share of 5G-capable phones to increase from 10% next year to 56% in 2023.

“To ensure smartphone sales pick up again, mobile providers are starting to emphasize 5G performance features, like faster speeds, improved network availability and enhanced security,” according to Gartner’s forecast. “As soon as providers better align their early performance claims for 5G with concrete plans, we expect to see 5G phones account for more than half of phone sales in 2023.”

Strategy Analytics last month also forecast that 5G devices will hold a 10% share of the market in 2020, compared to a projected 1% in 2019. The firm called 2020 a turning point for rapid growth once prices fall and 5G network buildouts expand, after which 5G smartphone sales will “skyrocket.”  

Apple is expected to launch a 5G iPhone next fall and chipmaker Qualcomm during recent quarterly earnings said it expects 200 million 5G smartphones to be sold by 2020.

“Price is the main concern for early adopters” said Ken Hyers, director at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Consumers do not want to spend top dollar on a device when there are few usable networks yet.” “Operators must widen 5G availability significantly in order for the technology to become attractive for consumers.”

Expanding 5G

While 5G still remains only in small pockets of the U.S., AT&T has promised to deliver nationwide coverage by the first half of 2020, and competitor T-Mobile set a Dec. 6 launch date for nationwide 5G using 600 MHz spectrum, with the promise of covering 200 million Americans.

Elbaz noted that for its initial sub-6 GHz launch, AT&T is using the same spectrum it has for LTE today. So while there will be some spectral efficiency improvements, users will likely only see “marginal differences” in speeds, he said, compared to massive speed boosts that come with high-bandwidth millimeter wave technologies.

“But 5G is much more than a faster network,” Elbaz said, pointing to capabilities like low latency that for the first time makes it possible to think about “a real-time network,” enabling use cases like smart manufacturing and Massive IoT.

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Like competitor Verizon, AT&T in the future plans to use dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which Elbaz said the carrier is now starting to test and plans to deploy in 2020. DSS allows operators to run both LTE and New Radio (NR) on the same channel, meaning existing LTE spectrum can be used without the need to dedicate a specific portion only to 5G at the expense of 4G user experience. 

Ericsson is the only major vendor that’s announced a commercial DSS product so far, but AT&T has dedicated spectrum it will use for early sub-6 GHz deployments.

“We have the spectrum so that allows us to start, but that technology [DSS] evolvement is really important because now you don’t’ have to worry about taking spectrum from LTE and moving it to 5G.”

Eventually, AT&T plans to make use of all its spectrum assets for 5G, he reiterated.

Fixed wireless

AT&T is also starting to use unlicensed Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz spectrum for fixed wireless within the government’s Connect America Fund Phase 11 (CAF-II) program. 

The carrier is transitioning its underlying fixed wireless platform to CBRS (though still running LTE), and according to Elbaz, is impressed with results.

When it comes to using fixed wireless for 5G in suburban areas, however, he said that while it’s clear the technology works, finding a viable economic model remains challenging. Still, AT&T is looking at 5G fixed wireless opportunistically.

“We don’t think that at this point to build a standalone fixed wireless network makes economic sense, but absolutely if you overlay this on top of your mobility network then there’s a lot of use cases around fixed wireless that can come with it.”

The ability for customers to easily self-install an antenna on their roof or window is a technology advancement that “probably is around the corner” and can help with the economic viability of 5G fixed wireless over time, Elbaz said, but reiterated AT&T is “very comfortable” with its approach.

Competitor Verizon in 2018 was the first to deploy 5G fixed wireless access, using its proprietary 5GTF standard, and last month for the first time expanded its 5G Home broadband product using the global 3GPP 5G NR standard to Chicago.

At launch Verizon offered white-glove installations, but now says customers can self-install, though technicians will still come to help customers find the best placement for a router or antenna.