AT&T plans 5G from lamp posts after FiberTower acquisition

12 February 2018 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

AT&T has acquired substantial millimetre wave spectrum for 5G by buying a company called FiberTower.

The deal, completed on Friday for $207 million, gives the company an average of 375MHz of spectrum in the 39GHz band in what AT&T described as “the top 100 markets” across the US.

AT&T said it “plans to use the millimetre wave spectrum obtained in the deal to help meet its goal of being the first US company to introduce mobile 5G in a dozen markets by late 2018”.

The company announced the deal more than a year ago, at the end of January 2017, when it said – buried in an announcement about working with power companies – that it had started deploying small cells using centralised radio access networks (C-RANs), sometimes called cloud-RAN, in San Francisco.

FiberTower map
Purple and yellow areas show FiberTower's 39GHz spectrum
The deal to buy FiberTower and its millimetre wave spectrum was intended “to assist in the execution of this vision”, said AT&T, which added: “We plan to install small cells on light posts and other infrastructure in the urban core of San Francisco. We’ll use a C-RAN architecture approach to build them.”

FiberTower, which was in chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, originally held 24GHz and 39GHz spectrum, and its sparse website still lists those bands. However AT&T says it has acquired just 39GHz spectrum with the company: FiberTower gave up the 24GHz spectrum (green and blue in the map) as part of a resolution of a dispute with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US regulator, because it had not built out the network by the required deadline.

FiberTower had planned to use its spectrum licences under the ExpressLink and ExpressNet brands to provide access to spectrum on a point-to-point basis and to provide access over a defined wide-area. It’s not yet clear whether that business will continue under the AT&T ownership.

AT&T will have to build out the 39GHz infrastructure (purple and yellow on the map) by 2024 under the new resolution with the FCC. It’s likely that the FCC will be able to offer 24GHz licences to new bidders.