AT&T sees private networks broadening vendor, customer ecosystem

AT&T expects enterprise adoption of private wireless networks to open opportunities for non-traditional vendors in the network equipment arena. William Stovall, VP for Enterprise, Mobility and IoT at AT&T, said that as private 5G networks become available for mid-market enterprises, the carrier may become “more diverse with vendors and our equipment.” 

“There is opportunity there,” said Stovall, adding AT&T wants to “align to the optimal vendor” for each deployment in order to “match the right RAN solution to the customer’s needs.”

AT&T is not the only carrier to turn to non-traditional vendors for private wireless networks. Verizon and NTT Docomo’s technology services group have both tapped Celona for private wireless hardware and software.

Meanwhile, traditional network equipment vendors Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung are all building their own private networks businesses.

Private networks move to the mid-market

Mid-market enterprises will be a focus of AT&T’s private networks business, Stovall said. Like larger companies, these firms want to capture and analyze data faster, he said. He explained demand for fleet and asset tracking solutions is also a need for mid-market firms. AT&T wants to offer private networks to track assets on company premises and transition those assets to its public network when they leave.

In addition to asset tracking, Stovall named manufacturing, healthcare, education and defense as key markets for AT&T’s private network solutions. Expanding on comments made  by AT&T CEO John Stankey at the company’s recent investor day, Stovall said the carrier has developed dedicated groups to focus on specific vertical markets.

Stovall foresees these vertical teams “leading industry ideation” by building specific expertise. He said teams include sales professionals, systems engineers, program managers, and solutions architects, adding AT&T has also created a 5G Center of Excellence that crosses verticals.

A key component of AT&T's private 5G strategy is its recently announced partnership with Microsoft, which is in the process of integrating AT&T’s core network with Azure. At Mobile World Congress 2022, AT&T said it will also integrate its 5G network with Azure private MEC, with the goal of delivering a one-box private network solution that enterprise customers can self-install.

“This allows you to start scaling these at places like remote hospitals or a business’ satellite locations,” Stovall explained. “This can use CBRS or licensed spectrum. … It is meant to drive simplicity and flexibility.”

Stovall said a number of AT&T’s CBRS engagements have involved organizations using the midband spectrum under General Authorized Access, meaning they do not pay for licenses and can use the spectrum whenever it is not needed by a license holder or the U.S. government.  AT&T can provide network deployment and management expertise, as well as a connection to the public network for both IoT devices and smartphones. “You’re seeing a growing smartphone base that is beginning to include CBRS spectrum bands,” Stovall noted, adding CBRS-enabled scanners are also hitting the market now.

CBRS does not yet support 5G, but LTE is still the technology of choice for most private networks. Relatively few endpoints support 5G, so private networks that require the high speeds and low latencies of 5G often use routers to connect devices to the network.

AT&T is deploying a 5G private network at Ford’s Rouge Electric Vehicle plant in Dearborn, Michigan, where the automaker will build electric vehicles. Stovall said the network will go live later this year. One of the network’s use cases could be a machine vision solution using smart cameras connected to 5G routers, Stovall said, adding the network might also leverage 5G smartwatches for some use cases.