AT&T President Kevin Petersen Reveals Why 5G is Taking So Long to Come Out

AT&T hosted its annual Shape conference last month to showcase one of the largest implementations of 5G networking the world has ever seen. But, for casual mobile device users and tech enthusiasts alike, the supposed wonders of 5G remain elusive. Following the event, Newsweek spoke with AT&T President Kevin Petersen to discuss the rollout of gig-speed mobile networks and what they might mean for entertainment and business experiences of the future.

att shape logo
AT&T hosted its annual Shape conference at the end of June. There, developers and hardware makers explored the possibilities of AR, VR, spatial computing and Magic Leap. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for AT&T

While the ultimate goal of 5G is to offer speeds that rival the fastest wifi, not all network frequencies are created equal. As Petersen describes, "there are different types of deployment. There's the millimeter wave deployment where you truly do get the gig-plus speed or the wider deployment where you're getting great coverage as well as performance." So, at least initially, 5G customers will be swapping between blistering-fast maximum speeds in smaller doses and something that's a marked improvement but not quite gig-speed everywhere else.

To Petersen, AT&T and many other carriers, 5G represents a great opportunity regardless of the flavor of coverage you get. "5G plays a really important role when you start to think about the data intensity required for AR, VR, spatial computing and reducing latency. It's a means of ultra-responsive connectivity, ultra-fast speeds and higher capacity," Petersen explained."While you can do a lot on today's technology, the 5G improves it in terms of response times and latency, speed as well as higher capacity. So it enhances today's experience and opens up the possibility for new experiences."

att 5g exhibit
5G has the potential to transform how consumers use mobile devices. The technology was showcased at AT&T Shape in June. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for AT&T

Those new experiences were a major focus of Shape 2019. Taking advantage of the still-in-development GeForce Now streaming service, attendees could leverage the power of 5G to stream triple-A games from high-end PCs.

For Petersen, one of his favorite moments of the conference was being able to play a 5G match of Vector Unit's Beach Buggy Racing 2. "I was able to take the Samsung S10, the 5G device, and play a game off the 5G network," Petersen said. "It showcases flexibility by going mobile, as well as the ultra-fast response times, throughput and capacity." For the more business-savvy consumer, Nokia and Airstream were also on hand to demonstrate what it's like to stay connected at a fully interactive bus stop and on the go.

The advantages of a mobile gig-speed network are obvious, but, even after events like Shape, the reality remains that it will take some time for 5G to go mainstream. "We're in the early stages," Petersen admits. "We being the carriers, will deploy 5G through the rest of this year and even into next year." After deployment, device makers and app creators will still be playing catch up for the foreseeable future. Petersen declined to offer a timetable for the widespread adoption of the new technology, but did propose that "over the next three or so years we'll see a very quick evolution and shift to 5G."

att kevin petersen headshot
AT&T President Kevin Petersen is bullish about the possibilities 5G can bring to entertainment and business. He spoke with Newsweek to discuss the changes high-speed mobile networks might bring. AT&T

With that in mind, Petersen tells us the slow rollout of 5G is mostly due to necessary physical manpower and community logistics. "There are certainly those physical elements of going out and deploying the network by climbing the towers and so forth. We've got one advantage in that we won a bid from the government to create a network exclusively for first responders, so, as we go out to update the towers to create our First Net network, we're taking advantage of that to bring in the 5G capability...

"Given that the millimeter wave is short, there's a shorter span or area that it covers. We're putting it on these small cells to enhance coverage and performance. That requires us to go locally and get the permits to do so. That is the biggest challenge."

Petersen is also keen to wait to give the emerging 5G ecosystem time to grow. "The time to develop the LTE experiences you have today didn't happen overnight," he cautioned. "It truly is this ecosystem of creators, developers, businesses and tech coming along for the 5G ride and ensuring we're creating those interaction points and taking advantage of these capabilities. That will be happening in parallel with the network being deployed and devices being made available. But that will take time to evolve. It will take time to mature, raise the awareness and hone in on how to truly take advantage of these great new capabilities."

From atop one of the world's leading cellular carriers, Petersen feels he has "a front row seat to the future." But, he's just as anxious as his customers to see what the 5G future brings. "A level of ambiguity can always be a challenging part of your role," he says. But, when it's ready, he feels 5G will deliver on its promises.

"I think there's a solid case to be made that it'll be a compelling part of our future," he said. Sadly for those who want faster coverage, it may be a future that's slow to arrive.