AT&T said this week that it might have a 5G smartphone to operate in sub-6GHz spectrum later this year. Such a device would be critical to supporting the company’s plans to deploy nationwide 5G in the first half of 2020, as the company’s nationwide deployment will rely on the sub-6GHz spectrum band.

When it comes to 5G, “sub-6GHz” — or “sub-6” as AT&T refers to it – is a key buzzword. And we’re hearing it more lately because the latest version of international 5G standards addresses service in sub-6GHz spectrum bands. Initial 5G deployments from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile used spectrum in millimeter-wave bands because those standards were ready first.

But while high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum supports the highest speeds, it has relatively short range, making it difficult or impossible to quickly deploy nationwide 5G in those bands. Tellingly, in this week’s blog post, AT&T said its millimeter-wave 5G service covers “iconic and high-traffic areas.”

Sub-6GHz spectrum, however, has broader coverage and, although 5G speeds in that band are not as fast as millimeter wave speeds, they are considerably faster than 4G LTE speeds. Sprint, which has deployed 5G in a sub-6GHz band in a few markets, has said it is seeing average speeds of 328 Mbps on those networks.

Major nationwide carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have said they expect to use a mixture of millimeter-wave and sub-6GHz spectrum for their 5G deployments. And Sprint expects to piggyback onto T-Mobile’s plans, assuming their merger is completed.

As of now, however, only AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have provided specifics about their 5G sub-6GHz deployment plans. For AT&T, that means using its ample 700 MHz holdings and for T-Mobile, its significant 600 MHz holdings.  A combined Sprint/T-Mobile will also leverage Sprint’s nationwide 2.5 GHz spectrum.

Some industry observers have questioned whether Verizon has sufficient sub-6GHz spectrum to support a nationwide 5G deployment – although the company has said it expects to use dynamic spectrum sharing to deploy 5G on top of existing LTE networks and to refarm some spectrum that currently supports earlier-generation technology. The company also may be able to acquire sub-6GHz spectrum in upcoming auctions.

AT&T 5G Sub-6GHz Plans 
According to this week’s blog post, AT&T has made its first data transfer over sub-6GHz spectrum in the field using a Qualcomm smartphone form factor test device powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 5G modem, RF transceiver and RF front-end.

“[A]lthough there are many more milestones to reach on the road [ahead], this one gets us closer to making those experiences a reality for both businesses and consumers,” AT&T said in the blog post.

The reference to businesses and consumers is a telling one, in that AT&T emphasized the business market for its initial 5G launch using millimeter wave spectrum. The company said that approach meshed well with millimeter-wave 5G’s high speeds and short-range, as the company was able to target its initial deployments around key business customer wins.

This week’s blog post comment suggests the company is casting a wider net for sub-6GHz 5G.

Yet More Marketing Lingo
AT&T clearly isn’t concerned about appeasing the chorus of critics who objected to the company’s use of the “5Ge” marketing term for a service that wasn’t really 5G, as the company continues to use another bit of 5G marketing lingo that it has coined.

Today’s blog post reiterates that the company will use the term “5G+” to denote its millimeter wave 5G service. On the plus side (no pun intended), 5G+ actually does refer to a standards-based 5G service. 5Ge, on the other hand, is actually a hotrod version of LTE that can “evolve” to 5G.

Nevertheless, one could argue that the 5G+ term will add more confusion to an already confused marketplace.

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