AT&T turns on dynamic spectrum sharing in parts of North Texas

AT&T said Friday that dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) is now live in parts of its network. That’s slightly ahead of the timeline cited by Igal Elbaz last month, when the executive said the carrier would introduce DSS technology in the second half of 2020.

DSS will first be available in parts of AT&T’s network in North Texas, an AT&T spokesperson told FierceWireless. The carrier didn’t give a timeline for when DSS will be widely deployed, saying “as we continue our rollout, we will continue to announce 5G market launches when available.”

In a Friday post Elbaz, SVP of Wireless Technology at AT&T, wrote “[DSS] is live in portions of our network with 5G devices already upgraded in the field.”

Elbaz also pointed to AT&T’s role in dynamic spectrum sharing, as the first to present DSS after shaping the concept in AT&T Labs a few years ago with the carrier championing it through standards.

“Simply put, DSS allows carriers to share the same channel between both 4G and 5G users simultaneously,” wrote Elbaz. “It turns up 5G without turning off LTE – creating a seamless experience for users, and a graceful spectrum transition for carriers.”

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AT&T didn’t name the vendor supplying the DSS software that it pushed live on the network, but Ericsson has been the leader on DSS. The Ericsson Spectrum Sharing (ESS) product is already used in commercial networks by global operators. Nokia launched DSS in April, and at the time said volume shipments were expected in July.

Responding to Fierce, an AT&T spokesperson said: “We work with several vendors across the ecosystem to create an intelligent robust network for our customers.”

DSS software means carriers don’t have to re-farm LTE spectrum in the near-term for 5G New Radio (NR) at a time when there are few users on the 5G network. As Elbaz explained, the "dynamic" part of DSS is about the technology’s ability to switch between LTE and NR based on needs and how many users are on either technology.

“The performance of DSS will depend in large part on how frequently traffic demand changes and the granularity of the resource allocations,” wrote Elbaz.

AT&T said DSS a key steppingstone in its efforts to deliver nationwide 5G. Although executives at competitor T-Mobile have raised issues and said DSS technology is still bumpy, Elbaz wrote AT&T is “encouraged by the progress” on DSS. Despite negativity, T-Mobile still plans to deploy the technology.

DSS is also important to help Verizon roll out nationwide 5G, because the carrier is lacking in available low- and mid-band spectrum resources. Even with DSS, the carrier will still likely need additional new spectrum if it wants to keep pace with competitors.

AT&T, Verizon to be aggressive in mid-band auctions

DSS can help AT&T and Verizon near-term, but Wells Fargo analysts indicated the two will likely participate aggressively in upcoming mid-band spectrum auctions to catch up to T-Mobile, armed with new mid-band spectrum.

Wells Fargo analysts said an investor call with AllNet Insights founder Brian Goemmer confirmed the firm's view that T-Mobile has a “clear spectral advantage in the race to 5G” with a head start on sub-6 GHz thanks to the 2.5 GHz from Sprint.  

Specifically, T-Mobile has 163 megahertz of 2.5 GHz spectrum (for a total of 324 megahertz of sub-6 GHz), compared to AT&T’s 175 megahertz of sub-6 GHz; Verizon’s 115 megahertz; and Dish 94 megahertz, according to Wells Fargo citing data from AllNet Insights & Analytics. Dish is also expected to acquire 14 MHz of sub-6 GHz from T-Mobile.

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“When one considers that DISH has ZERO wireless subs and VZ has ~120MM, it puts in perspective how disruptive DISH could be if it aggressively builds a virtualized 5G network to take using this ‘big empty airplane’ of spectrum,” wrote Wells Fargo senior analyst Jennifer Fritzsche in a Friday note to investors.

The firm sees Verizon as “very focused on narrowing the gap it now sees in terms of its mid-band spectrum portfolio vs. competitors.”

To do so, Wells Fargo believes Verizon will likely be the biggest winner at the C-band auction, which offers 280 megahertz of spectrum in large channels sizes ranging from 20 MHz up to 100 MHz. The C-Band auction is slated for December 8.

C-band is expected to be top priority, but everyone will be vying for a piece of the pie. Goemmer told the Wall Street firm that it’s going to be hard for any carrier to win more than 100 MHz, given the amount of spectrum both Verizon and AT&T need and that Dish and T-Mobile will be participating as they plan for future growth.  

Goemmer also thinks Verizon could participate actively in the CBRS auction next month, according to Wells Fargo. The auction is scheduled to start July 23 and offers 70 megahertz of priority access licenses (PALs) in the shared 3.55-3.65 GHz band.  Compared to C-band, smaller 10 MHz-size channels are up for grabs in the CBRS band.