AT&T announced Thursday that it plans to launch mobile 5G services in 12 markets by late this year, though it provided few details.
At Light Reading, Dan Jones and Iain Morris point out that announcement raises questions that are fundamental, to put it mildly. Jones and Morris conclude that it is unclear where the spectrum or devices necessary will come from in the timeframe mapped out by the carrier. (See AT&T's Mobile 5G Plan Leaves as Many Questions as Answers and AT&T Joins 5G Marketing War, Promising 'Mobile' Launch in 2018.)
The device issue is key, according to Chris Antlitz, the telecom senior analyst for Technology Business Research.
"AT&T's 5G announcement indicates the operator is determined to be the first to market with standards-based 5G mobile services in the US," he told Telco Transformation. "However, though the infrastructure will be commercially deployed in late 2018, devices that are compatible with that infrastructure are not expected to debut until mid-2019."
The announcement almost certainly is more about public positioning than technology roadmaps.
"AT&T's announcement was expected and much anticipated," wrote Ron Westfall, GlobalData's research director for Global Telecom Technology and Software, in response to emailed questions. "With T-Mobile and Verizon already kicking off the 5G hype cycle in the US, there was no way AT&T could afford to sit by idly for too long or risk losing mind share in the early 5G marketing games. In terms of the competitive landscape, AT&T’s timing is good as it kicks off 2018 and it provides runway to fine tune its 5G messaging leading up to MWC 2018."
The starting gun on this phase of the evolution of 5G sounded late last year. A month ago, the 3GPP approved the first 5G New Radio (NR) standard, which facilitates 5G NR operations within LTE core infrastructure. The "non-standalone" approach is designed to accelerate 5G services and ease the transition for carriers.
At this point, the lack of detail in the AT&T announcement is not surprising, according to Westfall.
"Late 2018 will see the first deployments of standards-based mobile 5G, led by operators in the U.S., Korea, and Japan," Westfall said. "So AT&T has plenty of time to strengthen its 5G strategy by the second half of 2018. In the meantime they avoid tipping off rivals and providing details that can prove to be wishful thinking later in 2018."
One thing the announcement does make clear is that the broad architectural approaches necessary to support latency-sensitive applications such as autonomous vehicles and virtual reality are being baked into the planning. These services will be supported by decentralizing data centers and the relocation of intelligence near to end users and at the edge of the network.
AT&T declined to comment for this story.
— Carl Weinschenk, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation