At this year’s Connected America conference, we caught up with with Chris Sambar, President of AT&T Network, after his fiery morning keynote session to discuss the latest trends in 5G and the company’s strategic approach to Fixed Wireless Access
America’s 5G journey
The US was one of the first countries in the world to launch 5G services back in 2019 and, since then, the country has raced to become a world leader in the new technology. Nonetheless, the journey to 5G maturity is far from over, with AT&T’s Chris Sambar noting that there is still huge potential for the 5G ecosystem to develop.
“LTE showed us what’s possible when the ecosystem develops together. 5G’s going to be very similar,” said Sambar. “It’s taking its time, but its also more complex than LTE […] We’re beginning to see it slowly come together, and the experiences are getting better and better.”
Part of this 5G evolution is the rollout of the more powerful standalone 5G architecture, a process which is already underway at AT&T.
“We’ve rolled out our standalone core at AT&T, we’re scaling it, and we’re starting to put some of those new services on there, like gaming, augmented reality and virtual reality,” said Sambar. “We’re pretty excited about the monetisation opportunities that these new services represent.”
The Fixed Wireless Access debate
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) has become a major talking point in the US over the past year, proving to be an exciting and often profitable use case for 5G at a time when monetising the new technology is challenging.
But while Verizon and T-Mobile are placing major bets on expanding 5G FWA services, AT&T’s FWA strategy is notably more reserved.
“Our view’s a little different from the other two operators in the US,” explained Sambar. “We see the RAN as the point of congestion. It’s a simple physics equation: how much load or bandwidth can spectrum provide to the users? One of our peers quoted that they are seeing up to half a terabit a month of usage on their fixed wireless network – that’s a lot. It’s a lot of bandwidth to put on a wireless network and congest the air interface very quickly.”
As a result, FWA can only be reasonably offered to limited number of customers in each sector before mobile service quality begins to be impacted – a fact that is only exacerbated by the growing consumer demand for bandwidth year-on-year.
The primary solution to this challenge is simply to deploy more mobile infrastructure to meet demand, which is very expensive, particularly compared to the average cost of a fixed fibre connection.
“[FWA is] not a true replacement for broadband,” said Sambar. “We’re going to reach a time when we’re going to struggle to provide services if we deploy it too broadly and I think that’s what the other two operators in the US are going to struggle with.”
Instead, AT&T’s primary target for FWA will be to offer services to those customers currently using legacy copper networks, a move that will both offer these customers an increase in service quality as well as allowing AT&T to sunset these older networks.
Building the sustainable network of the future
Finally, one of the biggest themes at Connected America 2023 – and, indeed, in the telecoms world more generally – was sustainability. According to Sambar, AT&T not only has a moral imperative to help take better care of the planet, but also a major economic incentive.
“AT&T’s power bill is well over a billion dollars a year. The faster we can get consumers off the copper network, the faster we can shut down the infrastructure in the offices where the copper is running, and that saves a whole lot of money,” he said.
He noted that AT&T’s power consumption is actually decreasing year-on-year as a result of more efficient technologies and the sunsetting of legacy network infrastructure, despite the increase in data demand. This is not only due to the deployment of more energy efficient infrastructure, but also the incorporation of AI, automation, and machine learning. These novel technologies allow for far greater network optimisation, not just for daily network functions but also for logistics, like site maintenance.
“A machine can look at a tower that’s scheduled for three upgrades over a year and, instead of sending an engineer three times, combine them all into a single visit. It sounds like a simple thing, but a human has a really hard time doing that with tens of thousands of towers in the network. It’s going to save us a lot of money and it’s also going to help us with our carbon footprint.”
You can view our full interview with Chris Sambar from AT&T from the link below