AT&T CFO John Stephens revealed the operator is setting itself up to move quickly on 5G, noting the deployment of software upgradable equipment as part of the buildout of new spectrum for a nationwide emergency network, and hinting at the prospect of limited device launches later this year.

In March, AT&T received clearance to begin deployments of 700MHz airwaves it won as part of a government contract to build a national public safety network, known as FirstNet. Stephens said at an investor conference the operator plans to touch more than 10,000 tower sites by the end of this year to light up that spectrum, but noted the work won’t serve FirstNet alone.

“Everything we’re doing with FirstNet is in anticipation of 5G. So as we put up all these antennas, we’re going to put them up as if they’re 5G capable so that when 5G does come we just do a software change at the ground level, we don’t have to climb the tower again.”

Handset question
Stephens insisted AT&T will lead on 5G, with plans to launch in 12 cities by the end of this year. But it remains to be seen whether the rollout will be paired with a 5G-capable phone.

Responding to a question about when 5G handsets will become available, Stephens said: “I think there will be some at the end of the year, probably on a limited basis, but more widely next year. I think you’ll go through the normal transition when you have new technologies. You’ll have pucks and other things, devices, available by the end of the year and then start coming out in wider capabilities next year.”

AT&T previously said it would launch 5G service without an accompanying handset, announcing the rollout would instead use “puck” devices.

But Qualcomm SVP of engineering Durga Malladi made a comment similar to Stephens’ in a recent interview with The Economic Times, noting some aggressive OEMs would like to launch 5G handsets in 2018.

Qualcomm, however, insisted it does not expect 5G smartphones to be available in 2018. In a Twitter post, Qualcomm’s director of product marketing for 5G Sherif Hanna said Malladi was referring to “5G-capable mobile data products, like hotspots” in the interview.

IDC predicted the first commercial 5G smartphones will come to market in the second half of 2019, with widespread availability across most regions by 2020. The analyst firm added it expects 5G devices will account for around 7 per cent, or 212 million, of smartphones sold in 2020, a figure that is expected to grow to 18 per cent of total smartphone volumes by 2022.