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AT&T Introduces Phony 5GE to Highlight Newly Lit Spectrum (It’s Really Still 4G LTE)

AT&T customers with Samsung Galaxy 8 Active or LG’s V30 or V40 smartphones began noticing a new icon on their phones starting last weekend: an italicized 5GE, leading some to believe 5G wireless service has now reached AT&T’s network.

Not so fast, AT&T.

AT&T’s use of 5GE, which stands for “5G Evolution” in AT&T’s techie parlance, is another example of how wireless carriers exploit up and coming technology upgrades that are unprotected from overzealous marketing misuse. The actual 5G standard is different from 5GE, and customers using 5G on millimeter wave frequencies can expect very different performance in comparison to today’s 4G LTE experience. But with 5G being hyped in the media, AT&T is attempting to capture some of that excitement for itself.

The company’s marketing division managed to accomplish a speed and technology upgrade without spending millions of dollars on actual 5G network upgrades — just by changing an icon on customers’ phones and making them believe they are getting a 5G experience. In fact, 5GE is actually just the latest evolution of 4G LTE already known to Verizon customers as LTE-Advanced or LTE Plus on Sprint’s network — technology including carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and 4×4 MIMO that has been in use on competing cellular networks in the U.S. since at least 2016. But just as Verizon customers saw significant speed improvements from Verizon’s updates to the 4G LTE standard, as AT&T deploys similar upgrades in each of its markets, customers should notice similar performance improvements.

AT&T claims 5GE is already live in 400+ markets with more to come. In the short term, the “upgrade” that was pushed to AT&T network devices last weekend only switched on the 5Gicon, which will mean little to AT&T customers already reached by 5Gand never knew it until this past weekend, and nothing to those still waiting for the upgrade to arrive.

Walter Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG Research, says AT&T’s latest spectrum deployments will matter more than whatever the company brands its latest upgrade, and could eventually allow AT&T to surpass Verizon Wireless in network performance.

AT&T’s recent effort to improve its network by deploying more wireless spectrum — up to 60 MHz in many areas, is not the 5G upgrade customers might expect, but it will deliver faster speeds and more performance on today’s smartphones.

AT&T calls its forthcoming actual 5G network 5G+, and the company is launching a modest but authentic 5G experience in limited “innovation zones” in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., Indianapolis, Ind., Louisville, Ky., New Orleans, La., Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., as well as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, Tex.

In a money-saving maneuver, AT&T’s combined spectrum upgrades include 20 MHz of FirstNet first responder spectrum (prime 700 MHz spectrum shared with AT&T customers except during emergencies) it received in 2017, 20 MHz of AWS-3 spectrum (1755-1780 MHz for uplink operations and 2155-2180 MHz for downlink) it acquired for $18 billion in 2015, and 20 MHz of WCS spectrum (2300 MHz) it acquired from NextWave for $650 million back in 2012. All of this spectrum is expected to be activated at the same time as technicians work to upgrade each AT&T cell tower. This dramatically cuts AT&T’s costs and truck rolls for incremental upgrades.

AT&T calls its improved 4G LTE network “5G Evolution”

“We’re turning up not only the FirstNet spectrum that we got, but all of this other spectrum that we’ve acquired over the last few years,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors at a December conference. “So as we climb these cell towers, we turn up the spectrum. By the time we get to end of 2019, we will have increased the capacity on AT&T’s network by 50%. I mean, you just have to pause and think about this. The entire AT&T wireless network capacity is going to increase over the next 14 months by 50%. I mean, that’s huge.”

Some areas have already received partial upgrades, others may find newly improved rural coverage as AT&T meets its commitments to the government’s FirstNet platform, which calls for more robust rural coverage. Some areas that never had AT&T coverage before may get it for the first time.

AT&T’s biggest competitor, Verizon, has commanded a lead in 4G LTE coverage from 2010 forward after utilizing a considerable amount of its available spectrum for the faster standard. But Verizon has not been a robust bidder for new spectrum recently, except for the millimeter wave frequencies it bought for its emerging 5G network. It has some additional unused AWS-3 spectrum it can use for expansion, but Piecyk believes Verizon may already be using those frequencies in many markets where it is likely facing a spectrum crunch.

While AT&T lights up 60 MHz of additional spectrum, Verizon is primarily depending on the ongoing conversion of 10-15 MHz of existing spectrum it now uses for 3G service to LTE each year. But the company is reportedly running out of frequencies in areas where data demand requires that extra spectrum the most.

The only short term solution for Verizon, which is not participating in marketing hoopla like 5GE, is to make its current spectrum more efficient. That means more cell towers sharing the same frequencies to reduce the load on each tower, improved antenna technology, and using newly available spectrum in the CBRS and millimeter wave bands to manage network traffic. Verizon may even use unlicensed shared spectrum to handle some of the load. Unfortunately, smartphones equipped to take advantage of these new bands are not yet available and may not be until 2020.

For AT&T, improved network performance is seen as a key to resume robust growth in new subscribers.  After Verizon dramatically improved its LTE network in 2014, AT&T stopped growing its lucrative post-paid phone subscriber base, according to Piecyk. Now it may be AT&T’s chance to turn the tables on Verizon.

This AT&T produced video helps consumers understand what 5G, beam forming, small cells, and coverage differences between 4G and 5G are all about. Notice the 5G trial speed test showed download speeds topping out at around 137 Mbps. (4:26)

Don’t Be an Early Adopter of 5G-Capable Smartphones: Expensive and Speed-Limited

(Courtesy: Conor McGregor)

Buyers of new 5G capable smartphones in 2019 could pay as much as a $200-300 premium over existing 4G LTE devices and be forced to live with speeds no better than a few hundred megabits per second, because the first phones to arrive will lack support for standards capable of delivering a gigabit experience.Despite a huge wave of hype over 5G technology by wireless companies like AT&T and T-Mobile, chipset vendors and manufacturers will not be ready to deliver gigabit-capable portable smartphone devices until 2020.

Device manufacturers are rushing to get the first 5G-ready smartphones in stores for sale starting this spring. All will lack support for frequency duplex division (FDD) in the below-6 GHz bands that will be critical for AT&T and possibly T-Mobile customers. Those two companies plan to heavily deploy 5G service in the 600 MHz-1.8 GHz bands, which require FDD. Qualcomm has already told manufacturers it has nothing ready to support those lower frequency bands at this time, which means most customers will see service fall back to traditional 4G LTE in many 5G areas.

Demonstrations of 5G phone prototypes at some marketplace shows underwhelmed visitors. With LTE+ delivering maximum speeds of 500 Mbps on T-Mobile’s network, customers in most cities with early 5G deployments will likely get lower speeds than that, especially when compared to cities getting the latest iterations of 4G LTE.

Phone vendors are planning to tamp down customer expectations for their first 5G smartphones, claiming real world speeds will be at or slightly better than 4G LTE speeds in many markets and no better than a few hundred megabits from a barely used cell tower. The 5G technology being deployed to work with smartphones is different from the fixed 5G wireless experience some Verizon customers are getting with its wireless home broadband service.

Early adopters will also have to contend with antenna challenges in some early phones. Millimeter wave signals can be blocked just by holding the phone, so some manufacturers are planning to install antennas in the phone’s four corners, hoping 5G very high frequency signals get through.

Unlike its competitors, Verizon is currently focusing much of its attention on fixed wireless 5G deployments in the millimeter wave bands, and some real world testing proved to Verizon once again that lab conditions can differ significantly from deployments in the field that reach actual customers.

The latest findings reported by EE Times found Verizon surprised by the greater-than-expected reach of their millimeter wave network, but somewhat disappointed by real world speed results which are coming in well below the multi-gigabit potential they expected. Verizon hopes customers will still be satisfied by the speeds they are getting, which average around 300 Mbps. How many customers can share a small cell and how that will impact speed is still unknown except by Verizon engineers.

Verizon has been forthcoming about some of the surprising findings it has noted from its current 5G deployments. Millimeter wave small cells have proved adept at bouncing signals off buildings in ways that can reach customers ordinarily blocked from line-of-sight access. Signals also extend outwards better than upwards.

“We were assuming that if we mounted radios at a certain height on poles, we could reach a sixth-floor apartment with 28 GHz,” said Nicki Palmer, chief networking officer at Verizon in an interview. “It turned out we got close to the 19th floor, and when that came to light, that changed our thinking” about costs and deployments.

“Urban canyons that were a nightmare in sub-6[GHz] bands now are your friend,” said Gordon Mansfield, an AT&T vice president who helped set and oversee the carrier’s 5G plans. “Bank shots are very real and extend your coverage for millimeter wave.”

AT&T Drops Data Caps for Free if You Subscribe to DirecTV Now

Phillip Dampier December 19, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Net Neutrality 2 Comments

AT&T customers are telling Stop the Cap! the company is emailing their broadband customers to alert them they now qualify for unlimited internet access because they also happen to subscribe to DirecTV Now, AT&T’s streaming service targeting cord cutters.

“Good news about your internet service! Because you also added DIRECTV NOW℠ to your internet service, we’re giving you unlimited home internet data at no additional cost.”

AT&T normally charges customers an extra $30 a month to remove their 1,000 GB data cap.

The move has some net neutrality implications, because AT&T is favoring its own streaming service over the competition, which includes Sling TV, Hulu TV, PlayStation Vue, and other similar services. If a customer subscribes to Hulu TV, the 1 TB cap remains in force. If they switch to DirecTV Now, the cap is gone completely.

AT&T has undoubtedly heard from customers concerned about streaming video chewing up their data allowance. With AT&T’s DirecTV on the verge of launching a streaming equivalent of its satellite TV service, data caps are probably bad for business and could deter customers from switching.

It is yet the latest evidence that data caps are more about marketing and revenue than technical necessity.

Updated 1:15pm EST 12/20: Hat tip to Karl Bode, who got AT&T’s official confirmation the unlimited internet offer that formerly applied to DirecTV satellite customers has now quietly been extended to DirecTV Now streaming customers as well. We are still looking for a screen cap of anyone who received an e-mail from AT&T about unlimited service for streaming customers. If you have one, drop me a line at phil (at) stopthecap.com

AT&T Launches 5G Service at the “Go Away” Price of $499 + $70/Mo with a 15 GB Cap

AT&T this morning switched on its 5G wireless mobile network in 12 cities around the country, making it the first U.S. provider to launch portable 5G service for wireless devices.

Like Verizon, AT&T is in no hurry to sign up new customers for 5G service. Instead, it will only be available “in dense urban areas” for a handful of businesses and consumers invited to sample the service for free over the next 90 days.

“This is the first taste of the mobile 5G era,” said Andre Fuetsch, president, AT&T Labs and chief technology officer. “Being first, you can expect us to evolve very quickly. It’s early on the 5G journey and we’re ready to learn fast and continually iterate in the months ahead.”

Because cell phones equipped with 5G are not yet widely available, AT&T will sell its 5G service with a NETGEAR® Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot device that will go on sale in the spring for $499. AT&T also intends to extract more money from wireless customers for its premium 5G experience. When service debuts, a 5G compatible data plan will start at $70 a month, including a 15GB data cap.

AT&T is not saying how fast its 5G network will actually be, only predicting it will be slower than the theoretical maximum speed of 1.2 Gbps, assuming nobody was using it. At an investor conference in early December, witnesses reported speed tests were averaging closer to 140 Mbps, which falls far short of the 5G Gigabit Hype the tech media has been breathlessly reporting.

AT&T’s launch switched on 5G service from selected city cell towers serving Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Louisville, Ky., Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio, and Waco, Tex.. Over the next six months, AT&T plans to switch on 5G-equipped towers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose.

AT&T’s 5G service will use traditional cellular frequency bands, and will effectively look like an incremental upgrade from 4G LTE. In real world performance terms, expect noticeably faster wireless speeds, but nothing close to what Verizon is offering with its fixed wireless 5G network, which relies on millimeter wave frequencies to deliver much faster service. AT&T’s 5G is portable, Verizon’s is not (for now). AT&T executives have been repeatedly skeptical about offering fixed wireless 5G.

AT&T hypes its forthcoming 5G network into the stratosphere. (1:44)

AT&T Still “Meh” on Fixed 5G Wireless; “We’re Focused on Mobility”

AT&T continues to gently discourage the media and investors from comparing its 5G strategy with that of its biggest competitor, Verizon, suggesting the two companies have different visions about where and how 5G and small cells will be deployed.

“We’ve done fixed wireless in our network on LTE as part of our Connect America Fund commitment from the government. We’ve been doing that for two years. And so we know the technology. We know it works, and it works for the purposes intended, which is real broadband,” said Scott Mair, president of operations at AT&T. “The challenge is the use case and the economics, right? So where does fixed wireless work? We’re focused on mobility.”

Mair echoes earlier sentiments from AT&T’s chief financial officer who has repeatedly told investors that AT&T sees fiber to the home service as a superior offering, and one economically within reach for the company in its urban and suburban service areas.

Speaking on Barclays Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Broker Conference Call, Mair did not rule out 5G residential fixed wireless service in certain expensive-to-reach areas, but it is clear AT&T’s priority will be to bolster its mobile network, not invade the home internet access marketplace. Mair noted AT&T will deploy small cells to power its 5G services, but primarily to resolve congestion issues in high wireless traffic areas.

“If we’re there, we build small cells primarily for capacity,” noted Mair, adding the company believes “the mobility use case is probably the right place to be spending our time and effort.”

AT&T plans to target its first fixed or short-range 5G services on its business customers.

“We see initially enterprise businesses as being the area where the entry will be first,” Mair said. “We’ve thought about partnering with a manufacturing firm, and I really believe that manufacturing is going to be a key capability. When you look at a factory floor, it’s real-time telemetry, real-time analytics. You have factories that now need to be more nimble than ever in terms of being able to reconfigure for product changes very quickly.”

AT&T is also continuing to aggressively expand its fiber footprint, including the prospect of constructing fiber networks outside of AT&T’s traditional landline service area. But the company stressed it is building fiber networks in new ways that will maximize the company’s Return On Investment.

Mair

“So with our fiber build-out, fiber underlies everything we do, whether it’s wireline or wireless. And so fiber matters,” Mair said. “By middle of next year, we’ll be at 14 million homes passed and because we also have a deep fiber footprint, we’ll have another eight million businesses that we pass. That gives us 22 million locations that we can sell fiber-based services.”

AT&T’s fiber network planning has become very sophisticated these days. The more customers sharing a fiber connection, the faster construction expenses will be paid off.

When a business client contacts AT&T to arrange for fiber service, the company used to run a dedicated fiber cable directly to the business. These days, AT&T attempts to maximize the potential use of that fiber cable by routing it through areas that have a high potential of generating additional business for the company or traffic on its network. For example, a fiber connection furnished for a business might also be used to serve multiple dwelling units, like apartment buildings or condos, or rerouted to also reach other businesses that can be sold fiber services.

“I’m passing two [AT&T] cell sites that I’m paying someone else transport and backhaul for, where I can now put it on my own network,” Mair offered as an example. “I know where I’m going to be building small cells in the future. We can plan out that. We know where we’re going to be. I can route that fiber. So now I’ve optimized the route.”

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