Crisis Innovation: Supporting an Unprecedented Network Surge While Still Building for the Future

May 5, 2020 | AT&T Technology Blog

It’s fair to say that no one knew when the year started where we’d all be just a few months later. But 2020 has demonstrated the resilience of our network plan we laid out over half a decade ago. And it’s given us all the motivation we could ever need to continue connecting Americans and first responders through FirstNet, fiber, 5G and more. What’s more, we’re announcing today that AT&T Communications is joining a global initiative called the Open COVID Pledge to make our patents available free of charge that might aid in the fight against this virus.

PREPARING FOR 2020

Our network engineers and designers have had 2020 circled on their calendars for a long time:

On top of that, we’ve been continuously augmenting what was already the nation’s best1 and fastest2 wireless network with additional spectrum. We were the winning bidder for spectrum licenses covering more than 99% of the U.S. population following the close of FCC Auction 103. Our existing spectrum allowed us to add more coverage last year than any other wireless provider to serve businesses, consumers and first responders wherever they are. This newly acquired spectrum builds on that.

We also recently met our commitment to make AT&T Fiber available at more than 14 million locations.

And we’ve been hard at work building FirstNet – the only network in the country built specifically with and for public safety. We’re honored the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent government agency – selected us for this public-private partnership charged with delivering a nationwide wireless communications platform that provides an experience unlike any other. Now, more than 12,000 public safety agencies and organizations across the country have subscribed. And over 1.3 million FirstNet connections are in service.

Then COVID-19 happened.

THE NEW NORMAL

As cities and states locked down and workers, including many of our own, headed home to do their part to help slow the spread of the virus, we saw an unprecedented surge in network traffic.

For example, on an average business day in the fourth quarter of 2019, our network carried 335 petabytes of data. The rate had certainly been increasing steadily, and was a large reason why we’d adopted our 75% SDN and automation goal. But COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns and work-from-home movement sent core network traffic levels up 20% or more almost overnight. Some applications, like wireless voice, saw even bigger jumps. Video streaming soared as kids started attending school remotely and we all binged on our favorite shows and movies. Businesses needed dramatically more VPN connections to enable their employees to access corporate networks from home.

In the face of that historic demand, though, our network teams both kept the current systems running smoothly and have continued to deliver on our long-term innovation strategy.

We still plan to hit our 75% SDN and automation goal.

We still plan to deliver nationwide 5G this summer.

We’re still underway with our 400G deployment.

With first responders and frontline medical personnel leading the charge against COVID-19, FirstNet is supporting them exactly as Congress and America’s public safety community envisioned. In fact, we recently announced that first responder agencies can stay up-to-date with premium FirstNet Ready™ smartphone devices for free, for life3. And for the extended public safety support community, we are also providing special offers including three months of free wireless service for frontline nurses and physicians4 nationwide on FirstNet.

Addressing the COVID-19 surge while staying on track with our long-term goals is only possible because we’ve spent years putting in place people and plans that can adapt, improvise, and overcome any obstacle.

HOW WE’RE BUILDING

We recently wrote a whitepaper titled “7 Principles of AT&T’s Network Transformation” that summarizes the next phase of our network journey. It’s a transformation that must start from the network edge – where customers actually connect to the network, such as over 5G or fiber – and extend to the network core with disaggregation and software-defined networking (SDN). Network function virtualization is also vital, and is similar to how gadgets have been replaced by apps on our phones. We are turning network equipment into software running on servers. Our Network Cloud embodies these principles and is at the heart of our 5G deployment. It is built on open source software which our developers helped create, including the Airship platform that powers it.  

Our network innovation strategy has not gone unnoticed outside AT&T.

A new research report from industry analyst Will Townsend gives a comprehensive overview of everything we’re doing to build the connected future, with an emphasis on 5G. As he notes:

“AT&T is uniquely positioned to capitalize and bring compelling 5G use cases and services to market while advancing networks beyond simple access. AT&T has the capabilities to drive 5G innovations given its rich legacy of innovation, deep collaborations with infrastructure providers, and leadership in consortia and shaping 5G standards, as well as its significant global investments in the AT&T Labs and AT&T Foundry initiatives.”

With the Open COVID Pledge, we’re also committing our patents to the world, doing what we can to accelerate work on medical equipment, network products, software and other technology that might be useful. You can find the terms and conditions of the patent pledge AT&T Communications has made here. We generate roughly 5 patents every business day at AT&T, and I’m hopeful ours can be helpful in this initiative.  

There are so many great people at AT&T making all this happen. Teams and individuals across the company were already doing heroic work before COVID-19. Since then, they’ve kept it up working from home or taking extra steps to work safely in the field and at customer sites, supporting vital charities and community initiatives, and connecting the medical heroes working on the frontlines of this crisis. I encourage you to watch some of their inspirational stories.

I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with those folks. And I’m thrilled to see the connected world take shape that they’ve been planning for all these years.

1 GWS OneScore, September 2019.

2 Fastest based on analysis by Ookla® of Speedtest Intelligence® data median download speeds for Q1 2020. Ookla trademarks used under license and reprinted with permission.

3 Available only to FirstNet first responder public safety entities for Primary Agency Paid User lines of service.  Requires a new FirstNet Mobile – Unlimited for Smartphone line or eligible upgrade on a two-year service agreement or AT&T installment 30-month agreement. For two-year agreement, upgrade your smartphone with a new eligible smartphone every two years at no additional cost for as long as your service plan is in effect and in good standing. Pay $.99 for eligible smartphone at purchase, credited back within three billing cycles.  Upgrade requires new two-year agreement. For AT&T Installment 30-month agreement, upgrade your smartphone with a new eligible smartphone every time you satisfy your current AT&T Installment agreement and sign a new one for no additional cost for as long as your service plan is in effect and in good standing. For both plans, tax on full discount price (two-year agreement) or full retail price (AT&T Installment agreement) due at sale. Activation and other fees, taxes, charges and restrictions apply. See firstnet.com/agencyoffers for offer details.

4 Ltd. time offer.  Credits equal to 3 months of recurring service charges (incl taxes & fees) on a FirstNet Mobile–Responder plan for smartphone or tablet will start within 3 bills. Available only to eligible physicians and nurses who have, or qualify and subscribe to a new, FirstNet Mobile–Responder plan.  For current subscribers, credits will automatically be applied to an existing line of service. New subscribers may migrate an AT&T line of service or activate a new FirstNet Mobile—Responder line of service. New subscribers must qualify for FirstNet service and complete verification process within 30 days. Customer must provide or purchase their own device and use a FirstNet SIM. See firstnet.com/currentoffers for complete details.

Link to original AT&T Blog

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