The future is wireless. At least, so all the wireless companies say. Sure, running actual cables to houses and apartment buildings brought broadband this far, but the always-on, always-streaming future is just going to get more and more mobile. And so the current era of 4G LTE wireless connections will eventually give way to 5G, which promises to be faster, better, and stronger in every way. But before you can use 5G tech, first you have to make it, you know, work.
AT&T is the nation’s second-largest wireless carrier, just behind Verizon, and also one of the largest pay-TV carriers, right up there in the top three with Comcast and the new Charter. And so it has a particularly vested interest in getting to large-scale, widely-deployed, useful 5G service as fast as it can in order to maintain its edge in both those businesses.
AT&T has been running tests on 5G tech for some time, and now claims in the lab it has managed to reach wireless speeds as high as 14 Gbps — that’s 14 times faster than Google Fiber at home, for scale. But “ideal conditions in the lab” and “the actual real world in which we live” are not at all the same thing, so it’s time to take that test on the road.
Since everyone always talks about broadband and the future of streaming media in one breath, well, what better to test AT&T’s new data infrastructure with than AT&T’s conveniently zero-rated, fully-owned streaming service, DirecTV Now?
And so, AT&T is packing a dozen corporate partners — including Intel, Ericsson, and Qualcomm — into its van and heading down the highway from its Dallas headquarters to the tech mecca of Austin to begin testing the new setup. It’s a fixed-line, residential test, meaning Austin viewers streaming DirecTV Now at home, in place — as opposed to out and about their phones — will be the ones giving it a go.
It’s not meant to be a pilot program, AT&T stresses; it really is a test, using “multiple sites and devices” in order to suss out how things work in the real world. And there will be another set of tests coming in the back half of the year, using a new tech standard that technically speaking doesn’t exist yet. But when that standard is finalized, AT&T says, it will run mobile and fixed wireless trials — starting in the back half of 2017 — using that standard.
AT&T isn’t promising that everyone will be able to pull video at 14 Gbps on their phones. For one thing, your device won’t support it. The company is saying, however, that it expects to “begin reaching peak theoretical speeds of up to 1 Gbps” on some real-world cell sites sometime this year. That’s between 10 and 100 times faster than your phone likely pulls down data in most major cities at the moment (somewhere in the 10 to 100 Mbps range).
The Death Star said about a year ago that it would begin 5G tests in Texas during 2016; that trial, which achieved upload and download speeds of about 1 Gbps, also took place in Austin and involved business customers trying out Ericsson millimeter-wave technology of the same type that the DirecTV Now trial will test.