AT&T wants 5G to go where fiber can’t – but can it really?

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ITEM: Over in the US, AT&T has revealed its 5G game plan, which kicks into gear this year. AT&T is essentially incorporating fixed and mobile into its 5G strategy – in fact, AT&T’s official statement emphasizes the role of fixed wireless in its 5G service, indicating that the telco sees 5G as an alternative to fiber in delivering gigabit broadband services to homes.

To be sure, mobile is very much part of AT&T’s 5G roadmap. AT&T says its LTE-A network will be foundation for 5G evolution, with some cells expected to achieve 1-Gbps peak speeds this year. Small cells, four-channel carrier aggregation and LTE-License Assisted Access (LAA) are part of its LTE upgrade plan for 2017.

However, AT&T also has big plans for mmWave technology in the 28-GHz and 39-GHz bands, which it sees as a viable fixed-wireless solution. Late last year, AT&T launched a 5G business customer trial in Austin, Texas, with Intel and Ericsson using mmWave to transmit video streaming and conferencing with upstream and downstream speeds of 1 Gbps during the first phase of the trial.

Planned trials for 2017 include a 5G video trial with DirecTV NOW – where residential customers in Austin will be able to stream the video service over a fixed wireless 5G connection – and mobile and fixed wireless trials with Qualcomm Technologies and Ericsson that will be based on the 5G New Radio specification being developed by the 3GPP.

AT&T has also been trialing multi-dwelling unit (MDU) fixed wireless point-to-point mmWave in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since October last year, which the telco said “gives us the potential to reach a new customer base outside of our traditional 21 state wireline service area.”

Put another way, AT&T apparently sees 5G as an alternative to fiber access as a way to deliver gigabit broadband to households.

That’s not too surprising for a couple of reasons: (1) AT&T has struggled to keep up with rival Verizon in the FTTH race, and (2) Verizon also plans to use 5G as a fixed-wireless access service.

The question of course is whether fixed-wireless can truly replace fiber. In the early days of broadband, as far back as the late 1990s, telcos faced with the daunting cost of fiber access deployments looked at fixed-wireless technologies as a possible cheaper and faster fiber alternative, but none lived up to the hype. Only WiMax came close, and while that technology did help some greenfields break into the telecoms business, it never achieved the necessary scale to live up to its own hype. (And it wasn’t quite as good as fiber, either.)

5G has far greater ecosystem backing than WiMax ever did, and it can certainly compete with fiber in terms of theoretical peak data throughput. (As an aside, AT&T isn’t the only US telco promising gigabit-level wireless data speeds in select areas this year – T-Mobile and Sprint have made similar announcements this week.)

But whether it can actually replace fiber from a customer-experience point of view is still mainly theory. The success of fixed-wireless 5G will depend on getting the implementation exactly right, comments Rob Powell over at Telecom Ramblings:

Wireless connectivity is like magic, except when you’re in a dead spot or the nearby tower is straining under its current traffic load. I have a feeling the ride to 5G for fully scaled video delivery is going to be a bumpy one. And given the likely new regulatory environment, it will be especially bumpy when going OTT.

One interesting aspect of this, Powell adds, is that if it works – if 5G really can serve as a FTTH substitute – it will finally bring true competition to the last mile:

 If 5G can do the job of copper, coax, and fiber in the last mile, then all of a sudden you don’t have an effective duopoly anymore.  And the process building out all the necessary fiber backhaul infrastructure will be a boon to the whole sector, regardless.

Meanwhile, needless to say, the success of 5G fixed-wireless in the US will have grand implications in emerging Asia-Pacific markets where FTTx rollouts have mainly been limited to dense urban areas. So watch this space.

Photo by JeepersMedia

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