AT&T to move fixed wireless customers to CBRS

December 2, 2019 - AT&T is set to launch fixed wireless service in the CBRS spectrum band, using the unlicensed spectrum to meet its commitments to the federal government. Igal Elbaz, the company's SVP for wireless technology, told investors on a Morgan Stanley conference call that "any day now" the carrier will launch fixed wireless LTE service in the CBRS spectrum band, and said the company is "impressed with the results."

Last year AT&T accepted almost half a billion dollars from the federal government as part of the Connect America Fund, and with that funding came an obligation to extend broadband to more than 400,000 underserved subscribers. Elbaz said the carrier has been offering fixed wireless service for the past 2-3 years and is now "transitioning the underlying platform to CBRS."

An AT&T technician installs an antenna for a customer. Source: AT&T

Citizens Broadband Radio Service has been on AT&T's roadmap for more than a year, and in 2018 the carrier said fixed wireless service for rural and suburban users would be its primary use case for the spectrum between 3.55 GHz and 3.7 GHz. In addition, AT&T has evaluated CBRS for private LTE networks for enterprises and for neutral host spectrum for large indoor venues. 

Eventually AT&T wants to offer 5G service using CBRS spectrum. More than a year ago the carrier said it would procure 5G-ready CBRS radios and base station equipment from Samsung, and would use CommScope's Spectrum Access system (SAS). All new commercial deployments in the CBRS band will need to use SAS software to make sure that they do not interfere with incumbent users of this spectrum, or with one another, since CBRS is considered shared spectrum.

Last year, AT&T said it planned to roll out commercial CBRS technology in U.S. cities beginning in late 2019. So far the carrier has not announced urban deployments, but Elbaz did not say the fixed wireless installations he mentioned were limited to rural locations.

AT&T has been using licensed 2.3 GHz (WCS) spectrum to provide fixed wireless service, and expects CBRS to deliver much faster speeds. The carrier has said it plans to provide internet access to more than one million U.S. locations by next year using fixed wireless. The states in which AT&T currently offers or plans to offer fixed wireless service are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. 

Fixed wireless service requires customer premise equipment. AT&T technicians install antennas and Wi-Fi gateway routers at each customer location. It is unclear how much of this CPE can be reused if customers are transitioned to CBRS. 

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