Amid FAA drama, AT&T’s 5G upgrade begins Wednesday in “limited portions” of 8 metropolitan areas

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Angela Lang/CNET

AT&T’s next big 5G upgrade is on the way, though it’s launching on a significantly smaller scale than rival Verizon. On Wednesday, the carrier announced it would turn on its new C-band 5G network (what it calls “5G Plus”) in “limited portions” of eight metropolitan areas.

These areas include Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami. Users in these cities, with a compatible device and an unlimited plan, should see 5G speeds “up to 3x” faster than what they were getting on AT&T’s 4G LTE.

Rival Verizon, which bought a lot more C band last year, expected to cover 100 million people with the signal this month and boasted peak download speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The carrier has since reduced that number to 90 million as result of the Federal Aviation Administration and aviation industry’s latest objection to C-band deployments around airports.

Even so, Verizon’s launch is still far bigger than AT&T’s initial rollout. The carrier previously hoped to reach 70 to 75 million people with C-band by the end of 2022, but supply chain issues in 2021 impacted that goal, vice-president Chris Sambar told CNET. AT&T’s Executive Chairman of Technology Operations.

Sambar declined to provide a target for the carrier’s position at the end of 2022, but said “construction will continue in earnest in the second half of this year” once it gets the equipment it needs. requires. “That’s when we can really start to become gangbusters.”

Sambar notes that when users upload to the new C-band network, they should expect consistent download speeds between 100 and 200 megabits per second.

He adds that the carrier has taken steps to “future proof” its network as it prepares for the C-band launch to prepare it to add additional bands of spectrum in the future. “So from our point of view, if we’re going to set up C-band, let’s set up C-band with whatever we want to put in place.”

Last week it was revealed that the carrier recently spent an additional $9.1 billion to acquire additional midstream spectrum through an auction with the Federal Communications Commission. Due to auction rules, Sambar was not allowed to discuss the carrier’s plans for this spectrum. AT&T aims to cover 200 million people with median spectrum by the end of 2023.

Added missing center piece

Unlike T-Mobile, which built a robust 5G network largely from the midstream spectrum it acquired in its Sprint merger, AT&T and Verizon have lagged in building 5G. That’s why both carriers have spent so much to acquire C-band and other forms of midrange spectrum.

Until now, both carriers have relied primarily on a combination of technologies known as millimeter wave and low-band spectrum. Millimeter wave has excellent performance but dramatically limited coverage that is often only available on certain street corners or in certain parts of stadiums, airports or arenas. Low-band 5G offers strong coverage, but its performance is often equivalent to 4G LTE rather than better.

With the addition of C-band, AT&T will be able to add a 5G network that works in the middle, bringing much faster performance than low-band 5G while providing significantly better coverage than mmWave. The operator spent more than $27 billion last year to buy wireless spectrum as it seeks to bolster its network.

AT&T says its low-band 5G network currently covers more than 255 million people, though again that experience is largely similar to a good 4G LTE experience. Its faster millimeter-wave network (also called “5G Plus”) is available in parts of 44 cities as well as in parts of nearly 30 stadiums, airports and arenas.

5G chart

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

The bumpy road to the C band

The road to C-band has been a bumpy one for AT&T and Verizon. The two providers originally planned to launch the new airwaves late last year, but ran into resistance. The Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and other members of the aviation industry have claimed that the frequencies used by C-band will interfere with altimeters used in aircraft and impact the ability to land flights in low visibility conditions.

The carriers, as well as the CTIA, the wireless industry lobby group, disputed those claims and noted how 5G C-band has been rolled out in nearly 40 countries with no issues for flights. The carriers had agreed to postpone the launch twice, first to January 5. then again until January 19 – but airlines have since warned of major flight delays if the launch goes ahead as planned.

On Tuesday, AT&T confirmed that it would still launch 5G in C-band as planned on Wednesday, but that it had “voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer the activation of a limited number of towers around certain airport runways” because it worked with the FAA and the aviation industry.

As to whether he would seek redress from the government to reimburse the carrier for all the delays, Sambar would not rule it out but said that was not the carrier’s goal.

“I don’t think we’ve come to that, but I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question,” he says. “Ideally, we’re getting to a resolution here…at the end of the day, American consumers need powerful 5G on the midrange spectrum that’s been auctioned off and bought up by carriers. Consumers need it.

“It’s good for our economy, and it’s good for America and everybody knows that. And so we’d rather not get our money back and get spectrum back or just get our money back. “It was intended to be launched based on years of studying this spectrum in the United States and abroad. We want to launch it and put the service in place for American consumers.”

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