AT&T Joins Verizon in Race to Build Faster Wireless Networks

  • Carriers outline roadmaps to 5G, with trials set for this year
  • Tests show wireless speeds as fast as fiber, CEO says

AT&T Inc. is joining the mobile speed race with Verizon Communications Inc., outlining plans for faster wireless technology to meet the increasing demand for sports, movies and even smartphone access to home appliances.

AT&T has chosen Ericsson AB and Intel Corp. as its first two development partners for 5G ultra-fast wireless-network technology that will pick up where today’s 4G, or fourth-generation, left off, according to a statement Friday.

While the mobile industry hasn’t yet established technology standards for 5G and the introduction isn’t expected until 2020, the two biggest U.S. carriers have announced road maps to stimulate development. Popular wireless services, such as live sports and streamed videos from Netflix Inc., are taxing the capacity of the current networks and driving the carriers’ investment in faster technology.

“I know Verizon says they will be first, but we are right there with them,” John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and group president for technology and operations, said in an interview.

The new technology promises to provide users with faster connection speeds while lowering the carriers’ cost-per-byte to provide service. Verizon took the lead in September, announcing it would start field trials in 2016.

AT&T will be using experimental high-frequency millimeter band radio spectrum in its tests. The Dallas-based company will begin work on the network technology in labs during the second quarter. After that, AT&T plans its first trials in point-to-point connections in preparation to deliver broadband connections to homes and businesses, Donovan said.

“We’re getting performance and testing that says we can get as good a performance off 5G wireless technology into the home as we’re getting off fiber today,” AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said on CNBC Friday.

As part of its $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T committed to extending its fiber network to 12.5 million homes and businesses as well as offering standalone broadband service to low-income Americans instead of just costly bundles.

The 5G alternative could play a role in AT&T’s promise to expand broadband access to more people, said Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics LLC.

“This could be a solution for rural America for really fast Internet,” he said, noting that the carrier has a surplus of spectrum outside major cities.

Stephenson used the TV appearance and announcement Friday to pressure regulators to allocate the right airwaves for 5G services.

“Government has to get spectrum policy right to allow this to flourish,” he said.