‘The physics of fixed wireless cannot serve the demand’: AT&T’s Jeff McElfresh on the case against leading with FWA

AT&T is playing the long game as it looks at its infrastructure investments, says Jeff McElfresh, COO of AT&T—and that doesn’t include leading with Fixed Wireless Access as its go-to offer for home and business broadband.

McElfresh emphasized that 5G and fiber are AT&T’s core businesses, and that it is focused on attracting and retaining high-value customers—which plays into how it thinks about FWA.

AT&T executives have previously discussed their expectations of a continued and massive increase in data traffic that will necessitate a fiber-based network, no matter what.

“The reason for our ‘lead offer’ approach, if you will, is that we know that the physics of fixed wireless cannot serve the demand for what a household is looking for, or a business is looking for, for high-quality, premium broadband connectivity,” said McElfresh during remarks at the Bank of America C-Suite TMT 2022 virtual event. “What we mean by that … is, it just really truly is physics. It’s multi-gig symmetrical,” he continued. “Uplink is becoming a much more important component to your broadband experience, and the only technology that offers unfettered and broad and a great experience is a fiber-fed network.

“We can serve the last-mile customer with a wireless offer or wireless solution, but it’s not going to out-perform one that is a direct fiber connection,” McElfresh said.

He followed that up with: “We’re not opposed to fixed wireless, it’s just not our lead offer,” noting that AT&T has “hundreds of thousands” of FWA consumer and business customers, particularly through the Connect America Fund II program where federal dollars subsidize service extensions. But from what it sees on usage of those services and its expectations for future data traffic growth, he continued, “we know that the wireless architecture is going to under-perform the expectations in time,” and its deployment versus fiber becomes a question of a “timing game.” AT&T feels that it is making the more future-proof infrastructure bet.

Is FWA a tool to be used in AT&T’s network today? Yes, McElfresh says—but the operator wants to aim it at specific customer cohorts who don’t have access to fiber, in areas where it doesn’t intend to deploy fiber, or to protect its coverage footprint in areas where it is moving customers off of legacy copper networks and FWA will perform better than DSL or other low-speed wired offerings. While AT&T will pursue those kind of situations and continue to experiment with the use of FWA, he said, “but it’s not the majority of our growth agenda. It’s not part of our revenue equation.”

Asked if AT&T was behind on FWA compared to T-Mobile US, which has touted its head-start in deploying midband spectrum holdings at 2.5 GHz as central to its ability to offer both mobile and home internet service, and Verizon’s massive C-Band deployment push that includes expanding its home broadband service availabilty, McElfresh again returned to the theme of serving high-value customers and getting ROI on investments.

“If you look at the return profiles of fixed wireless—revenue versus amount of data being consumed—we didn’t purchase premium midband spectrum to occupy it with that kind of subscriber unit,” McElfresh responded. He went on to point out that during his years with AT&T, he ran a “very large-scale” FWA operation in Latin America and called FWA a “temporary stop-gap at best.”

If AT&T only had a wireless network to work with, and didn’t have a large-scale and growing fiber network, the company “might have no other choice than to leverage [our] wireless spectrum to go grow my business,” he added. “But at AT&T, we’re not restricted to that. The fact that we’ve got two platforms that we can grow on, gives us the ability to make smart decisions geography by geography, not playing for a quarter or a year, playing the long game.”

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