AT&T says it will bring its super fast 5G network to Raleigh and Charlotte

AT&T is rolling out its 5G network in a mix of big and midsized cities, including Raleigh and Charlotte.
AT&T is rolling out its 5G network in a mix of big and midsized cities, including Raleigh and Charlotte. Bloomberg

The next generation of mobile-network technology is coming to Raleigh and Charlotte this year.

AT&T announced Friday that it has added North Carolina’s two largest cities to the initial build-out of its planned mobile 5G network. Oklahoma City also is getting it, the newcomers joining Dallas, Atlanta and Waco, Texas, on AT&T’s to-do list.

Company executives, including Melissa Arnoldi, AT&T’s president for technology and operations, vow the project will eventually deliver “more than just a better network.” They believe 5G’s technological improvements will support similar advances in other fields, most notably the auto industry’s move to introduce driverless vehicles.

As with predecessor generations of cell-network technology, 5G promises improvements in speed and bandwidth to move more and more information through the ether.

But AT&T argues the behind-the-scenes electronics also should react faster than today’s networks when asked to move data, facilitating the development of new, on-demand applications, such as those that help a driverless car navigate roads.

The technology got a boost in June when an international consortium, 3GPP, signed off on a set of technical standards that every player in the wireless industry will have to use when designing hardware and software for 5G networks.

AT&T is one of several cell providers planning mobile 5G deployments this year, but it’s the first to publicly include North Carolina cities in the short-term plans. Competitors have focused on the West Coast or larger cities like New York City and Dallas.

In Friday’s announcement, AT&T said it’s trying to “launch with a mix of big and mid-sized cities.” It also took a veiled swipe at a competitor, T-Mobile, which said it’s focusing on large cities because “New York matters” more than Waco, according to a report in The Verge.

But AT&T’s choices overlap with the list of U.S. tech centers that have figured in several high-profile business recruiting drives.

For example, Atlanta, Dallas and Raleigh are all in the mix for Amazon’s second headquarters and were in the mix early this year to host the Army Futures Command, the new headquarters the U.S. Army’s set up to ride herd on weapons development. That project went to Austin, Texas, part of the same “mega-region” in that state as Waco.

And no matter which cities in the U.S. gets it first, Triangle-based companies like Qualcomm and Cree figure to profit from the development of 5G.

Qualcomm’s designing back-end hardware for the new networks and, like AT&T, has been involved in 3GPP’s standards-setting process. Meanwhile, Cree makes the sort of advanced, gallium-nitride semiconductors that CEO Gregg Lowe reckons are critical to 5G’s success.

Given 5G’s higher bandwidth and efficiency requirements, “it’s almost to the point you can’t do 5G without” gallium-nitride chips, Lowe said. He said the new networks likely will have four or five times the number of base stations covering a given area than current 4G networks.

AT&T’s initial deployments aren’t likely to include full-fledged cellphone service, at first, not least because the phones aren’t ready yet, according to CNET. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors to instead expect “pucks that work like mobile hot spots,” CNET reported.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg