AT&T turns on mmWave 5G in NYC, plans sub-6 GHz coverage in ‘coming months’

AT&T turned on 5G service for business customers in New York City on Tuesday, marking the carrier’s 21st 5G market.

The carrier is using its 39 GHz millimeter wave spectrum, with service currently available to certain business unlimited plan customers in limited areas, and not offered to general consumers. AT&T said it's working closely with the city to expand coverage to additional neighborhoods through NYC’s five borough and plans to deliver broad 5G coverage using sub-6 GHz spectrum “in the coming months.”

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“While we are pleased to take the first step today in NYC, we maintain that the City is in critical need of a strategy that allows wireless carriers to add capacity where it's most needed—particularly in densely populated and trafficked areas—in order for 5G to reach its full potential for our customers,” said Amy Kramer, president, AT&T New York, in a statement.

During 2016-2018 AT&T invested nearly $1.4 billion in its wired and wireless networks in New York, and made around 4,800 wireless network upgrades in the state last year alone.

FirstNet bolsters 4G, readies 5G network

Separately on Tuesday, speed trials in Boston ahead of a keynote session by AT&T CFO John Stephens at Oppenheimer’s annual Technology, Internet & Communications Conference delivered reported consistent speeds of more than 100 Mbps on AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

“And, that was without Wi-Fi, and I don’t have a special phone and my network guys did not put a special cell site parked outside the building,” said Stephens, speaking at the conference. “This is just day to day.”  

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AT&T has been upgrading hardware and adding capacity as it builds out its FirstNet dedicated first responder network. When AT&T touches a tower for FirstNet, it’s adding on average 60 MHz of new spectrum and utilizing LTE-Advanced technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, 256-QAM, which has resulted in enhanced 4G LTE performance in recent third-party tests. The 60 MHz includes previously unused AWS-3 and WCS spectrum, as well as Band 14 spectrum that AT&T is required to deploy as part of its FirstNet contract.

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Stephens reiterated that the FirstNet build was 60% complete as of the end of June, about nine months ahead of schedule, and on track to finish 70% by year-end. The operator has around 700,000 FirstNet customers, with new customers representing about half of that figure. With its one-touch strategy, AT&T is also investing in hardware that is 5G-capable via a software upgrade.

Stephens said AT&T will be able to upgrade “a significant part” of its core network to 5G when the software upgrade becomes available, which AT&T is hopeful will be later this year.  

He committed that AT&T will have broad 5G coverage, with 200 million PoPs, by mid-2020.

AT&T is hopeful 5G network upgrades will help with subscribers both in terms of gross adds, and more importantly to reduce churn in its existing customer base, according to Stephens.

While network improvements show immediate results, he noted that convincing customers or gaining widespread recognition among the public about those enhancements can take time. AT&T received much public criticism early this year for marketing its 4G LTE upgrades as “5G Evolution.”

For its millimeter wave 5G service, AT&T has maintained it’s taking an enterprise-first approach.  Stephens pointed to its live network being utilized in hospitals in Chicago, a manufacturing facility in Austin, and said recent tests in Atlanta clocked speeds of 2 Gbps.

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AT&T on average has about 600 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum nationwide and the carrier stands to pick up additional millimeter wave licenses at the FCC’s upcoming third high-band 5G spectrum auction, slated to start in early December. Stephens couldn’t comment on Auction 103, given the imposed quiet period.

T-Mobile/Sprint merger implications

While Stephens noted that AT&T doesn’t have an official opinion on the deal, and approval is not official until a lawsuit filed by a group of state attorneys general to block the merger is resolved, he said AT&T is “ready to compete.”

With that said, Stephens indicated an advantage if it’s approved, as T-Mobile and Sprint deal with normal merger-related distractions that come with combining two different company cultures, technologies, and customer bases, which would coincide with AT&T’s continued build and related distribution expansion.

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“All of that [merger completion tasks] is just hard to do, and it’s expensive,” said Stephens. It should be noted AT&T is working through its own integration of Time Warner entertainment assets, which the operator acquired last year for $85 billion.

As the decision on T-Mobile and Sprint gets pushed back, with a court date recently delayed until December, Stephens said AT&T can continue executing its network plan.

“Quite frankly, as that [merger decision] keeps getting delayed, our network team keeps taking our 5G and our FirstNet and 5G Evolution build further and further down the road, and that’s great for us,” said Stephens.