AT&T moves needle on standards-based 5G to late 2018

Last week’s decision by the 3GPP standards body to accelerate some elements in the 5G New Radio (NR) timeline means AT&T will be able to launch standards-based mobile 5G services starting as early as late 2018.

That’s a year ahead of the anticipated time frame before the decision to accelerate the standards, according to Andre Fuetsch, president, AT&T Labs and CTO, in a blog post. Last week at a 3GPP RAN Plenary meeting in Croatia, more than 40 signatories voted to accelerate the non-stand-alone implementation of 5G NR, saying it paved the way for enabling large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.

Now AT&T is talking about a time frame of late 2018. “Throughout this year and into next, you’ll hear more about our plans for 5G fixed wireless and how we’re preparing for the launch of standards-based mobile 5G as soon as late 2018,” Fuetsch said.

He emphasized AT&T’s work with dozens of major industry players on the path to 5G and said “we remain as aggressive as anyone when it comes to preparing for a 5G world.” In fact, AT&T’s standards team has found that AT&T has been the top North American wireless carrier contributor into 3GPP’s work on 5G standards since the start of 2016.

Executives at rival Verizon, which is conducting precommercial fixed wireless trials in 11 markets, have said they expect to launch a commercial fixed broadband offering in 2018, but they see a mobile type of 5G service farther out, like the end of 2019 and possibly into 2020. Verizon has worked with ecosystem partners in the Verizon 5G Technology Forum to develop its own specifications outside the standards bodies, although it ultimately voted for the 3GPP 5G acceleration plan after initially opposing it for many months.

RELATED: Controversial plan to accelerate 5G NR timeline gets OK in 3GPP

Fuetsch said about 137 petabytes of data traffic cross AT&T’s network on an average business day, with video driving a lot of the traffic. 5G will be a critical part of staying ahead of the demand, and “we’re excited to see what 5G means for augmented reality/virtual reality, video delivery, self-driving cars, healthcare and more,” he said.

With past generations of wireless networks, the industry has seen some companies launch proprietary technology in the race to be first and then later have to backtrack, leaving customers with potentially obsolete phones and gear. “We don’t see how that approach benefits customers,” he said.

RELATED: AT&T to showcase 5G in Austin, Indianapolis this year

Last fall, AT&T launched what executives believe to be the industry’s first 5G business customer trial in Austin, Texas, and it’s expanding its activities to do mobile-first video services this year. A second trial will kick off in Austin this spring with Ericsson’s 5G RAN and the Intel 5G Mobile Trial Platform.

It's also got other 5G activities in the works and it's evaluating 5G at various frequencies, including 28 GHz, 39 GHz and sub-6 GHz frequency bands. AT&T has 39 GHz spectrum, which in particular will play a key role in 5G.