AT&T starts rolling out a potentially game-changing 5G technology

AT&T starts rolling out a potentially game-changing 5G technology
There's been a lot of talk over the last few months about T-Mobile's great progress (both recent and future) in terms of 5G coverage and speeds, as well as Verizon's early (and impressive) lead in the latter department. Meanwhile, Sprint's own early 5G rollout efforts and development resources are now in Magenta's hands, positioning "New T-Mobile" as an industry trendsetter and possible market leader in the not-so-distant future.

But where does that leave AT&T in the grand scheme of the nation's 5G deployment equation? The short answer is... in a pretty awkward place. We're talking about a carrier that technically offers three different flavors of commercial 5G services, nonetheless ranking behind Verizon and Sprint in average download speeds and behind T-Mobile and Sprint in 5G availability in the latest in-depth Opensignal report.

That's because Ma Bell's 5G Evolution technology is little more than a publicity stunt (and a misleading one at that), the "standard" 5G signal is based on low-band spectrum and therefore not very fast, while the 5G+ network suffers from the same coverage limitations and problems as Verizon's 5G "Ultra Wideband" service. On top of everything, AT&T also doesn't own as much dedicated 5G low-band spectrum as T-Mobile, making it impossible for America's second-largest carrier for the time being to challenge Magenta's 5G availability numbers.

A big step towards a major 5G coverage boost


Fortunately, that's where a groundbreaking technology dubbed Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) comes in. Unfortunately, this is not ready for nationwide primetime just yet either. The way DSS works is essentially by allowing mobile network operators to, well, dynamically share spectrum. In other words, AT&T can now use the same "channel" for both 4G and 5G users "dynamically", aka simultaneously.


Even simpler put, the carrier doesn't need to permanently switch off its 4G LTE signal and repurpose said spectrum to exclusively serve 5G-enabled smartphones. Instead, DSS is what AT&T calls a "traffic-aware" technology, instantly responding to changes on its network to allocate and split 4G and 5G resources depending on demand. 

In theory, that sounds like an absolute game changer with the potential to significantly shorten AT&T's path to nationwide 5G, but in reality, there are still a number of kinks to iron out, as well as many important unanswered questions.

Although both Verizon and T-Mobile plan to embrace Dynamic Spectrum Sharing... eventually to help with their own 5G support expansion efforts, the "Un-carrier" has been very vocal about its skepticism regarding the technology's wide-scale implementation in the short run.

Limited availability and device support


T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray anticipated "a tough year on DSS" back in February, further highlighting that the potential industry game changer was "still bumpy" just last month due to a previously unforeseen delay in the rollout schedule of one unnamed major network equipment vendor.

While AT&T didn't care to elaborate what equipment vendors made its recent DSS launch possible, it's definitely worth pointing out that the software-based technology is currently only live in "parts" of Ma Bell's network in North Texas, as reported by VentureBeat.

 

Obviously, the carrier hopes to "continue expanding" its 5G coverage "throughout the year, bringing the power of 5G to more customers from coast to coast", but at least for the time being, there are no other details to share on actual dates or places.

The list of "5G devices already upgraded in the field" to support Dynamic Spectrum Sharing is also disappointingly short, merely including Samsung's Galaxy S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, and Galaxy Note 10+ 5G, as well as LG's V60 ThinQ.

Last but certainly not least, there's the question of the actual user benefits DSS is expected to facilitate. The answer is unlikely to make AT&T customers very happy, as the mobile network operator anticipates significant improvements in speed... further down the line. Until the technology is refined, upgraded, and deployed on a larger scale, you'll have to settle for pretty much the same download numbers you usually get on LTE.

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