AT&T target 2023 for ubiquitous rollout of fixed wireless Internet

(Image: AT&T/Graphic: The Desk)

The chief executive of telecom giant AT&T says the company should be able to broadly deliver fixed wireless Internet service to most of the country by 2023, but warned it could still be a few years before that service offers consistent download speeds that meet the federal definition of “broadband.”

The comments were made earlier this week by John Stankey, the chief executive of the phone company, who remarked that AT&T’s recent decision to split off its content arm WarnerMedia will help accelerate the rollout of that service and others to customers.

“I would expect, with our stepped-up investment, you’ll see that happen in what I would call a more ubiquitous fashion starting in [20]23,” Stankey said, adding that he expects “the majority” of the populated country to have access to AT&T’s fixed wireless Internet service by that time.

Fixed wireless Internet service is a relatively new type of consumer service that allows customers to access wireless data networks to fulfill their home Internet needs. It is marketed as a comparable alternative to land-based Internet services like fiber optic-based products offered by phone and cable companies, especially in smaller communities and rural areas where laying down new fiber optic lines is difficult due to factors like terrain, local regulation or cost.

All three major wireless phone companies currently offer fixed wireless broadband Internet service to consumers, with T-Mobile recently announcing a variant of its service aimed at business customers. AT&T offers a version of its fixed wireless service operating on its older 4G LTE network and is expected to begin offering 5G wireless Internet for home users soon.

One large difference between fixed wireless Internet service and traditional cable or fiber optic Internet is speed: While land-based Internet services have started offering speeds up to 2 Gigabits, fixed wireless Internet service remains limited to the speed and capacity of its wireless network. Most wireless phone companies offer speeds that average around 100 megabits per second — if that — and the speeds can be further reduced due to congestion and prioritization tactics used on their networks.

To that end, Stankey says it could take until 2025 for AT&T to offer speeds that are consistent with the federal definition of “broadband,” which currently rests at 25 megabits per second. His comments anticipated federal regulators eventually increasing the speed to around 100 megabits per second, which has been discussed in recent months.

“I think it’s going to take into [2024 or 2025] to start delivering the kind of speeds nationwide that probably the FCC and government will ultimately end up defining as the new standard of broadband,” Stankey said.

Still, the future of fixed wireless Internet at AT&T looks bright, according to Stankey, who revealed that he has tested his own company’s service at a home in rural Texas.

During a recent wave of storms in Texas that resulted in prolonged power outages, Stankey said a prototype 5G wireless router used at his home held up relatively well when it was coupled with a backup battery. The setup allowed Stankey to remain online when traditional Internet services failed during the storm, and it wasn’t bogged down by an increase in people using their phones to connect online during the severe weather event.

“That was a really nice seamless experience for some of those spikes that were occurring,” he said.