AT&T execs see COVID-19 potentially delaying consumer 5G adoption

Goal is to time broad 5G availability with 5G iPhone availability

Speaking May 12 at the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit, AT&T SVP and CFO John Stephens acknowledged that COVID-19’s impact on the economy has changed the calculus related to 5G device purchases. But, he said, the nature of AT&T’s 5G build, which also includes LTE upgrades and the FirstNet deployment, will still pass along benefits to users.

“The factors have changed,” Stpehens said, according to a transcript of the virtual discussion. “Yes, a consumer may consider putting off the purchase of many consumer devices, appliances, cars, phones, other things in an effort to retain their resources…That may happen, but it doesn’t affect our profitability.”

He continued: “The way we’re building towards 5G in an evolutionary basis, we are dramatically improving our LTE coverage and speeds along the way. So the customers we have get the benefit of what we’ve done with the equipment that’s in their hands today. They don’t need to buy a new device, although we do expect 5G to provide new opportunities and new applications.”

AT&T is building out both low-band 5G using its 850 MHz spectrum and millimeter wave spectrum, the latter of which is billed as 5G+. Stephens said the goal is a “national footprint in 5G by mid-summer.”

Speaking a day later at the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Communications Conference, current AT&T COO, future CEO, John Stankey said the operator has added more than 70% capacity to its network and the company has the spectrum depth to allow for a “very, very effective transition to 5G”

“We’re seeing the strength of that core LTE network get better as we’re deploying all the technologies that LTE-Advanced allows,” Stankey said, according to a transcript of the session. “And at the same time, now starting to layer 5G, and to your point, we’ll be in a situation where, in the summer, we’ll have that nationwide coverage of 5G. I think you know our customer base really well. It far over indexes on Apple products. They’re not as consumed right now on 5G as an offering because there is no 5G Apple product, and there won’t be probably until later this year. I would expect at some point in time after, we’ll make an announcement on something. I believe our network will line up well to when those product offerings possibly could occur and come in the market.”

In response to a question from Craig Moffett regarding the outlook for 5G in enterprises facing financial pressure–“does it change your expectation for how quickly 5G happens as a commercial proposition?”–Stephens said it’s a mixed bag. “Technologies often bring cost efficiencies. So when you’re in those businesses that are going through this, you do have solid balance sheet, solid capabilities, good technology, they may want to move quicker to 5G to wring out the cost savings and efficiencies. So we’ll see how that plays out, but we still think that’s one side of it…We’ll see what happens with business, but this could, in some cases, accelerate the demand for cost efficiencies that 5G will provide.”

Stankey expounded on this, noting the COVID-19-related trends around working from home. 5G, he said, “allows that enterprise to think about a highly-managed wide area network with incredible levels of security that supports the kind of environments that we’re in today. And so I think it plays very well into the enterprise thinking about more extended managed network and having the ability to go and deal with the workforce that’s out there as well as new business models that we’ve talked about. You think about managing a distributed environment, like a manufacturing, or you think about zones, like medical communities and medical establishments, and what can occur, I think those use cases in the midterm will be the ones that we see start to pop up. That really demonstrate the architectural strength of 5G and what it can do, probably more so than what we see out in the distributed consumer space other than faster networks that are able to handle more traffic are a good thing for consumers, and 5G will certainly be a step that helps in that dynamic.”

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