AT&T CEO Stephenson: AT&T has fastest wireless network, will have 5G nationwide footprint by mid-year 2020

Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that the company has increased the capacity of its wireless network by 50% such that it is now the fastest and highest quality (presumably in the U.S.)

“Over the course of about 3 years, we are increasing (or have increased?) the entire nationwide capacity of the AT&T wireless network by 50%……What’s the by-product of that? AT&T, end of last year and first half of this year, has just surpassed the competition in terms of wireless network performance. It is unequivocally the fastest wireless network, best quality network. We’ve exceeded the competition and the gap is widening. It’s not getting closer. That’s a beautiful place to be for a company like ours, having a high-quality network claim. And it’s really important when you’re entering a world of distributing premium video to our consumers over wireless networks.”

Stephenson credits AT&T’s FirstNet build for helping with much of the company’s work on 5G:

“You have to go out and you have to climb every cell tower where you’re deploying this (FirstNet) network nationwide. Why is that such a big deal? We have also, over my tenure as CEO, invested well over $40 billion in aggregating a big portfolio of wireless spectrum. And this is really important because we believe when the world of video came, and you’re distributing video over wireless networks, you’re going to need an amazing amount of capacity. So we’ve been accumulating this wireless spectrum, $40 billion plus worth of this. To put that spectrum to work, what do you have to do? You have to go climb every cell tower and put it to work. This is expensive stuff to do across an entire country.”

And “what do you have to do to deploy 5G? You have to go climb every cell tower in the country and put up 5G antennas and the hardware associated with it.” he said.  More specifically, Stephenson stated:

“We will, as a result of all this work that I just talked about, we will have a nationwide 5G footprint by midyear next year, nationwide 5G by midyear next year in the really premium spectrum areas of our network. And so we’re feeling really good about wireless.”

AT&T presently has 21 pre-standard 5G markets up in the U.S. using high band millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. Stephenson said that T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are all going “aggressively” for 5G markets in the U.S. In fact he considers the US the global leader in 5G.

This author strongly disagrees and believes that almost all of the currently deployed pre-standard 5G networks will have to be replaced in 2021-2023 after IMT 2020 is standardized by the ITU (not 3GPP!).

Stephenson said, “In China, I’m not aware of any 5G systems up and running…In Europe I’m not aware of an RFP [request for proposal] out.”  While it’s true that China is currently in the build-out phase of 5G, it’s a top priority of China’s government to be the world leader as per this recent IEEE Techblog post.

Stephenson also talked up the benefits of 5G (as if there wasn’t enough hype already?). For instance, he says that 5G can handle “millions” of devices on a cell and locate objects to within “centimeters” rather than meters. The networks, he added, will also be “real time” and help with the “virtualization” of functions — an initiative that AT&T has already been pursuing aggressively through various open source projects in the OCP, ONF and Linux Foundation.

“You have to have powerful compute capability for 5G.  All of a sudden, when you have networks this fast, you can begin to push a lot of these requirements, storage into the edge of the network. And so you’re getting cloud distributed (computing) down to the edge of the network. This brings a whole different level of speed, but it also brings a whole different level of imagination in terms of what do form factors start to look like? Millions of devices per square mile literally being located within centimeters of each other with a whole different form factor in terms of power, storage and compute requirements. I mean, truly, the Google vision of a few years ago that everybody laughed about, that this becomes the screen, that’s feasible. That is truly feasible. Sensors that are microscopic because the power requirements are so much lower. And where this allows you to go as a society? I mean traffic management capability because of sensors that are this cheap and broadly distributed, millions per square mile, pipeline management, utility — I can go on and on, autonomous cars.”   Ughhhhh!

Continuing with his 5G cheer leading, Stephenson added:

“When you go to 5G, millions of simultaneous connections are now feasible within a given square mile area on this technology (unlike 4G-LTE). That’s a different business proposition for everybody who sits in this room and all the companies you invest in. So the connectivity goes to a different level. The security, this is the part we love, goes to a different level as well,” he added.

Note — AT&T’s mmWave Spectrum holdings:

AT&T currently uses mmWave spectrum for its 5G+ service.  The company’s 5G spectrum holdings in the millimeter wave band are now more than 630 MHz (as of July 2019 as per this press release).  All of the licenses won in FCC Auction 102 were in the more valuable upper 500 MHz portion of the 24 GHz band, AT&T said.  “We’re leading the nation in mobile 5G deployment and the large, contiguous block of spectrum we won in Auction 102 will be critical to maintaining that leadership,” said Scott Mair, president of AT&T Operations.  For more information, please see this IEEE Techblog post.


Regarding virtualization of 75% of AT&Ts network (a claim we think is highly exaggerated as per this comment), the AT&T CEO said:

“This virtualization, which we now have 75% of our network virtualized, cloud-based types of architecture, we are now 17 — roughly 17 quarters where the cost of this has been going down year-over-year 7% to 8%, year-over-year for about 17 straight quarters. That’s a stunning development. For a company like ours, to get yourself in a cost position like that to address pricing pressure, competition from the Chinese and so forth, it’s a really powerful thing.”

As for AT&T’s wireless network operator competition, Stephenson said:

“Everybody is in an aggressive build cycle for 5G, so a lot of capital being deployed as well. But do have a new player in the market in the form of DISH with a prepaid business and a lot of fallow spectrum? Does that come into the market? And the AGs have a successful lawsuit and block it? I honestly don’t know how predict it. I do think the next 2 or 3 years doesn’t get radically different. If the Sprint/T-Mobile deal gets done, everybody’s — Sprint, T-Mobile, we know what that play looks like to run integrations of large-scale networks. They have a lot of great opportunity. They’ll have a lot of spectrum to put to work, but it’s a 2- or 3-year integration exercise. DISH will have a rather significant period of time to build out networks. So next 2 or 3 years may be as predicable as they’ve been. As soon as you say that, something will change, but it’s kind of my assessment of it right now.”

“You have T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon all going aggressively, accumulating the spectrum required to deploy this, getting the spectrum cleared and the right bands to deploy this and working the standards of the technology. And so we have been aggressive. AT&T was hyper-aggressive at working the global standards for 5G so that our network equipment providers can manufacture equipment and get us in the market.”

Question to Ponder?

In conclusion, we ask readers to think if Stephenson’s remarks are truly accurate, especially his claims (echoed by many AT&T executives) that the company has virtualized 75% of its network functions.  That would mean replacing that percentage of network equipment (hardware with embedded proprietary software/firmware) with open source virtualization software and orchestration running in commodity compute servers with white box switches and transport network elements.  Is that true or is it “lies and more lies?”