AT&T to launch 5G wireless this year in Indy and Austin

Standards for 5G still not coming until 2018

AT&T will launch its first 5G wireless service in Indianapolis and Austin later this year, offering theoretical top speeds of 400Mbps or higher, the company said.

Current 4G LTE networks used by customers may be far less, often no higher than 30Mbps on downloads, from the nation's major wireless carriers, according to various field tests by independent testing companies.

One such testing company, OpenSignal, reported last year that AT&T had reached just 7.93 Mbps on 4G LTE for average downloads, based on thousands of measurements. T-Mobile, meanwhile, was the top performer, with 12.26 Mbps.

Massive bandwidth and low latency from 5G will help self-driving cars and mobile augmented reality and virtual reality headsets, AT&T said Wednesday.

New technologies atop the 5G network and greater density of wireless transmitters could bring the theoretical test speeds even higher -- to 1Gbps in 2017, AT&T said. In December, AT&T launched its first business customer trial in Austin with Intel and Ericsson.

The 5G rollout in Austin and Indianapolis will occur "in coming months," AT&T said. The company also said it will build two new 5G testing labs this spring in Austin. The testbeds will be used to support a fixed wireless 5G connection to stream DirecTV Now for residential and small and medium business customers.

Also, the testbeds will be used to evaluate multiple vendors of advanced 5G technology for wireless systems. The tests will also explore 5G signal coverage for frequency bands in the 28GHz, 39GHz and sub-6GHz bands.

At an event in San Francisco, AT&T described 5G as one of several parts of a technology platform called Indigo. John Donovan, AT&T's chief strategy officer for technology and operations, described Indigo as similar to an operating system for the AT&T network. Every network element will become more efficient using the Indigo approach, he said.

In addition to 5G, AT&T described other components of Indigo that include software-defined networking and open-sourced ECOMP, to be hosted by the Linux Foundation. ECOMP is described as a network operating system behind AT&T's software-defined network. ECOMP stands for Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy and is basically automation software to help virtualize networks.

AT&T said Indigo includes a data platform that organizations relying on AT&T's network can use to share data and collaborate securely on analytics. For example, AT&T said with Indigo, patients living far away from research centers could participate in medical trials; so-called smart cities could share data and initiatives; or cybersecurity experts could use machine learning to analyze threats to all the members of a community, not just threats faced by one member.

Early in 2016, analysts predicted that full rollouts of 5G and related components by both AT&T and Verizon to reach significant parts of the U.S. would not occur until 2019 or 2020.

AT&T's plans for 5G in 2017 with Austin and Indianapolis show that "AT&T is charging hard with 5G," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "I still think it is a neck-and-neck race with Verizon. But the key difference is that AT&T is pursuing standards-based 5G, while Verizon is pursuing pre-standards-based 5G." However, the standards have not been approved, he noted.

The 5G wireless standards group, called 3GPP, approved a fixed wireless standard "accelerated plan" that could offer a completed standard by the end of 2017, so that SK Telecom could show the new technology at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Entner said he believes all 5G standards won't be approved until late 2018.

The current state of 5G "is like pre-season football," Entner said. "Who wins and loses in pre-season matters less than who wins the Super Bowl."

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