A peek behind AT&T's 5G debut and $700 million spent in Kentucky

AT&T is launching 5G in 12 cities this year, and Louisville, KY will be one of the first to receive it. Here's what it means.

How Louisville is poised to be one of AT&T's first 5G cities

Since 2015, AT&T has spent more than $700 million in Kentucky to boost its wireless and wired networks. It's also upgraded the existing 4G LTE network, which has paved the way for Louisville to be one of the first of 12 cities in the US to receive mobile 5G from AT&T.

"Louisville's a good market for AT&T, but in addition, it's based on the investment we've been making in the past. A lot of that's made possible by the regulatory environment that the legislature and others have created here that creates an atmosphere for investment," said Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky.

In addition to Louisville, the remaining 11 cities slated to receive mobile 5G before the end of the year are the Texas cities of Dallas, San Antonio, Waco, and Houston, as well as the cities of Indianapolis; Atlanta; New Orleans; Jacksonville, FL; Charlotte, NC; Raleigh, NC; and Oklahoma City.

SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (Tech Pro Research)

AT&T's push into 5G

In early 2019, the cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose will receive 5G from AT&T. The company will continue to expand 5G service after launching in these cities.

Initially, 5G will be available for AT&T customers using the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot; it's the first standards-based mobile 5G device in the world that can access a live millimeter wave 5G network, according to AT&T. The pricing and exact availability date for the mobile hotspot have not yet been released.

Benefits of 5G and how it works in a smart city

The benefits of 5G include high-speed connectivity with low latency. However, there is a lot of confusion from consumers about 5G and what it will do for them.

Smart cities will see an advantage with 5G; enterprises will also benefit from 5G. AT&T is working with a semiconductor plant in Texas that will use 5G, and AT&T partnered with Magic Leap on an AR headset that will use 5G, said Hank Kafka, vice president of radio access and devices for AT&T.

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

"5G is the enabler that allows that to happen much more effectively than it could in the past, because that low latency and high speed allow a lot of the processing to be done on the network instead of having to be done locally, which makes the glasses a lot more easier and more convenient to use and work with," Kafka said.

The impact of 5G

"5G is really going to impact every area of our life. Just like when the iPhone launched and smartphones became popular, we couldn't foresee all of the ways we were going to use them. I think it's the same thing with 5G," Harris said. "Right off the bat, we can see that faster data with less latency is a value, but it's a value in law enforcement with our FirstNet product. Think about first responders being able to go to a fire scene and have a map of the building or the layout of the building they're going into. Think about policemen having cameras, where if they pull their gun, it immediately starts recording and sends that to the people responding to the instance, so the policemen coming in can see what's happening. But that FirstNet, it literally can be a life-saving technology."

Autonomous cars will also become more viable once 5G is in place in a city.

"Autonomous cars, they need vast amounts of data, and they need really low latency. That's what 5G has, vast amounts of data and really low latency. In healthcare, remote surgery needs low latency, experts being able to send big files of CAT scans or X-rays from a remote clinic to an expert here in Louisville. I think that's one thing we need to remember: In Louisville, we have this great community of medical expertise. They're going to be able to utilize this in ways we can foresee and some ways we can't," Harris said.

Even older adults could benefit. "We've got a [big] senior care industry in Louisville. Think about aging in place at home and using kind of smart sensors that can assist people to stay in their home for a longer period of time. I think most people would rather age in place in their home, and technology enables them to do that," Harris said.

Once 5G is readily available in devices, a mobile hotspot such as the Netgear Nighthawk won't be necessary unless an older device is being used. In preparation for the advent of 5G, Motorola launched the world's first phone that can upgrade to 5G, the Moto Z3. It has a 5G moto mod that can be added as an accessory.

The future of 5G

Dan Hays, principal with PwC, recently co-authored a report, The Promise of 5G. He said devices commonly aren't up to new standards when they're first released. "I think 5G in particular has made it even tougher. The industry as a whole suffers from a big chicken and egg problem. It's, 'do I build the technology into the devices before the network is ready, or do I spend the billions of dollars on the network and deploy it before there's devices to actually use it?' So that's where we're seeing some of these clever middle grounds that are attempting to do this," Hays said.

It will be somewhere in the second half of 2019 before customers see a large volume of 5G devices available, Kafka said.

AT&T's continuing investment in Kentucky

AT&T's fiber networking will feed the 5G network when it launches. Right now, AT&T Fiber is available to more than 150,000 customers in Kentucky.

"5G needs to have the fiber to provide the connectivity. 5G gives you a lot of bandwidth. That's bandwidth to the 5G cellular site, but then to get back on to the internet, you've got to have the fiber to connect that wireless connectivity to the rest of the world. So the fiber is critical to having the 5G network out there," Harris said.

As for the downside, Harris said, "The challenges with 5G are is it takes vast amounts of capital to make this happen. We can't rely on our existing cell network alone, our large cells. We also have to have small cells, which cover a smaller area but enable us to give that area really great service. As we're building out 5G, we need lots and lots of these small cells spread out around. Part of that is because we're using much higher bandwidth frequency. I don't want to get too down in the weeds with you, but the higher the frequency, the more data it can carry. That's the good part of millimeter-wave or ultra-gigahertz frequencies."

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By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a former Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included wri...