AT&T on Tuesday made its first big push for its 5G-based Internet Air service, going live in 16 markets. That’s more than two years after T-Mobile launched its own 5G home internet service and five years after Verizon went live with its first 5G Home market.
So why the long wait?
“We’ve always been working on this,” said Erin Scarborough, president of broadband and connectivity initiatives at AT&T, in an interview with Cord Cutters News on Monday. “We’ve taken our time to really thoughtfully look at our network to see where we have capacity.”
By launching later – much, much later – than its telecom rivals, AT&T is hoping to avoid the growing pains that come with introducing a new type of service. Verizon initially launched with a limited number of markets, and it was originally difficult to actually qualify for the service because of the limited geography. T-Mobile had its share of complaints from customers whose service didn’t work or degraded over time.
Scarborough said AT&T looked at the data on its network to pinpoint what areas could adequately support 5G home internet in a way that didn’t disrupt its core wireless service. “We didn’t want to go out broadly and pull that back,” she said. “We didn’t learn in reverse.”
It’s a similar tack that Apple has taken with its products, often waiting years and offering a more fully fleshed out product – think the iPhone, iPad and the upcoming Apple Vision glasses – than competitors that had been duking it out for years in the market.
And while AT&T is coming in late, the company does boast extensive experience in providing fixed wireless services – just with bigger business clients.
“AT&T has offered (fixed wireless access) services to businesses for quite some time and by waiting – it is delivering a very compelling consumer FWA service with added features,” said Will Townsend, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
But the fact is AT&T is playing catch-up with T-Mobile and Verizon, two companies who have spent tens of millions of dollars over the years promoting and building up their own 5G home broadband services, remains a challenge.
Scarborough said Internet Air is differentiated because of the additional features layered on top of the service. The 5G router will alert you if it’s not in an optimal location. There are also security and other features that she believes sets it apart from the competition.
“We believe it’s a best-in-class service,” she said.
For many consumers, the hassle and wait might be worth it. The rise in interest of 5G home internet comes amid continued mixed reviews for more traditional internet service providers, with the cable companies typically ranking the lowest.
But even AT&T’s own DSL service falls in that bucket, which is why the company is keen to get Internet Air rolled out now. Scarborough said she sees this as a “copper catch,” or way to get old DSL customers out of the copper line-based service and into something that’s potentially faster for consumers and cheaper for AT&T to provide.
This summer’s initial deployment, a trial in just four markets, was all about targeting customers on old DSL lines. And while Tuesday’s launch meant it was going after a broader segment of consumers, the hope is that those older customers will be the first to migrate.
AT&T has been looking to shut down its copper-based DSL and telephone lines, and wants to remove 50% of its footprint over the next few years. While Scarborough didn’t say this would accelerate the removal of copper, she noted this was a strategy to get customers off those lines.
At the same time, she clamped down on any talk that Internet Air would signify a change in how aggressively it wants to build out its physical fiber-optic network. That remains the top priority for the company.
“We’re 100% not changing our fiber-first strategy and mentality,” she said.