MWCA: Fixed, non-standard 5G a 'waste of time', says AT&T CTO

AT&T is focused on a pure mobile 5G offering based on industry-wide standards, CTO Andre Fuetsch has told ZDNet, unlike its competitors.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch has said his carrier did not want to "waste time or effort" on the deployment of non-standardised, fixed 5G unlike its competition, instead waiting for industry collaboration to come through ahead of launching a pure mobile 5G offering.

Speaking with ZDNet in an interview during Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) in Los Angeles on Thursday, Fuetsch said AT&T has worked over the past two years with industry and the technology community.

"It was all about building up a consortium of operators and suppliers, vendors, to really drive the 5G standards much earlier than they would normally go into effect, because we frankly didn't want to waste time and effort on a proprietary standard that frankly our competition has chosen to take," he said.

"We really wanted to go after a global standard that the entire industry could align around ... the differentiation really here is we're mobile 5G, all standards based, we're not about fixed 5G or non-standard. There's a lot of fixation on fixed right now; our track is all about mobile."

His comments follow rival carrier Verizon announcing earlier this week that it is launching 5G Home.

Fuetsch added that AT&T's mobile 5G offerings will also be backwards compatible with previous generations of wireless, so that if a customer leaves a 5G zone they will instantly and seamlessly drop back onto 4G, which he said will not be the case on home 5G offerings.

AT&T's 12 5G launches during 2018 -- which are being deployed alongside Nokia, Samsung, and Ericsson -- will be backed up by a hotspot device enabling current smartphones to connect via Wi-Fi, averaging gigabit-plus speeds.

The initial deployments are all around the carrier's millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum holdings, which he said is what will provide the high bandwidth and low latency associated with 5G use cases.

While conceding that mmWave does have limited propagation characteristics, Fuetsch revealed that trials have actually shown it can bounce off certain materials -- for instance, off the roof of a carport.

"Millimetre wave actually doesn't penetrate through walls, and concrete, and windows very well. However, that said, with all the trials we've been doing over the past couple of years with millimetre wave, we actually find it can work quite well," Fuetsch told ZDNet.

"The early perceptions of millimetre wave was it had to be completely direct line of sight, but that's not necessarily the case. What actually happens is these waves, depending on building materials and the environment it's operating in, can actually bounce around."

The advantage of using mmWave is also the ability to deploy small cells on the tops of buildings and city common infrastructure such as light poles, rather than needing to build new towers.

However, there is "a lot of permitting and regulations" around these, he said, requiring negotiations and coordination with local municipalities and governments on rules and fees.

"We are trying to drive standardised processes and work at higher levels for state-wide common practices to be adopted," he said.

AT&T is also differentiating its offering by not only targeting larger cities but also regional and rural areas.

"One of the things about our 5G deployment is we didn't want to just go into all the big cities, we want to show that we're all about America, and all communities large and small," he said.

AT&T's 5G rollout will see it bring 5G by the end of 2018 to Dallas, Atlanta, Waco, Charlotte, Raleigh, Oklahoma City, Houston, New Orleans, San Antonio, Jacksonville, and Louisville.

It is additionally planning to launch mobile 5G services in parts of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose in early 2019.

Project AirGig coming to fruition

Also speaking to ZDNet on AT&T's Project AirGig, Fuetsch said the idea came about after deciding that broadband inside powerlines would not be fast enough in terms of end-user speeds.

"Our researchers and engineers discovered ... why not take advantage of the electrical power infrastructure -- think of power grid, think of power poles, power lines -- what if we were able to piggyback not into that infrastructure, meaning going inside the conductor wire, but around it?" he said.

"What if we could use the power lines as a wave guide to transmit very powerful high-gigabit, multi-gigabit services around the power wires ... we would inductively power this equipment, because it's carrying electricity, and why not leverage an infrastructure that is fairly standardised and fairly ubiquitous all around the country as well as the world?"

According to the CTO, AT&T can achieve tens of gigabits of bandwidth using this infrastructure, with the carrier performing trials with various power companies after getting more than 500 patents either pending or approved for the technology.

Power utilities would also benefit from the tech, he said, because it will help them "understand their infrastructure" and move from a reactive to a proactive outage solution process.

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