AT&T marks 4G LTE moment, says more upgrades on the way

With 50-plus cell sites already in place, up to 20 more being added to fill out coverage area

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 17, 2014 

AT&T flipped the proverbial switch on its 4G LTE wireless service in the Columbus market earlier this month, bringing the smoother and faster state-of-the-art technology to local customers.

On Thursday, at a media event, the company said it plans to add up to 20 more cell sites on top of the 50-plus it now has in the city to fill out its local coverage.

“We’re actually starting some of the build-out now,” Terry Smith, AT&T’s regional director of external affairs, said during a brief, celebratory gathering at the company’s retail store on Macon Road. “We’ve been acquiring pieces of property and sites for those towers over the last year. We’ll be starting to see some of the construction activity in the next month, and the build-out will take 12 to 16 months.”

The rollout of 4G LTE in the Columbus market had taken somewhat longer than in other Georgia cities, with the lack of local spectrum — or radio frequency — needed to ensure fast, reliable downloads of data that most residential and business consumers have come to expect while using devices such as smartphones and tablets.

But that changed in late September with AT&T’s purchase of Alltel networks in six states from Atlantic Tele-Network Inc. That included equipment — and spectrum — in several Georgia area counties, which included Harris, Meriwether, Quitman, Schley, Stewart, Sumter, Talbot, Taylor and Webster.

“For Columbus, they (then) had access to the spectrum, the radio frequency that allows us to provide 4G LTE,” said Smith, noting the local switch to the latest technology was shaved from about five months to four.

On Thursday, he thanked a handful of city and state officials for their efforts in smoothing the way for new cell sites and towers. That included Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Columbus Council and Georgia State Rep. Richard Smith, who co-sponsored a bill this year to streamline the approval process and limit review times for deploying new wireless technology and equipment.

“Technology is important, but good governmental policy is also important,” Smith said. “The better that we can provide incentives for AT&T and all of the other companies in the state of Georgia, the better they can get things done.”

Tomlinson thanked AT&T for its capital investment and civic participation in the community, while also pointing out she is a grateful customer who uses the wireless service. She harkened to bygone days.

“Remember when we had dial-up and you got on the Internet and you thought that was so great,” she said, drawing chuckles. “Now it’s like if (a data download) doesn’t happen in a split second, you think: What’s wrong? But to have 4G from AT&T is just fantastic.”

Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Gaymon said the upgraded broadband wireless service offered by AT&T will be useful to both companies already in the city, but also those possibly looking at locating here in the future.

“As we’re trying to recruit new companies to come to our community, technology and the ability to serve technology — from a business standpoint and from an employee standpoint — is getting to be more and more one of those things that’s not only expected, but required,” he said.

A special addition to Thursday’s event was an appearance by a member of AT&T’s board of directors. Jim Blanchard, retired chairman and CEO of Columbus-based Synovus Financial Corp., said he had first been on the board of AT&T’s predecessor, Bellsouth, in 1988 and has watched the company and technology evolve.

He remarked that the Alltel and Leap Wireless acquisitions — which he voted to approve as a board member — are going to be a “game changer” for AT&T and the communities and consumers it serves in south Georgia.

“In the southern part of Georgia, we’ve been operating at a disadvantage, because we have what you call weak high-band spectrum,” he said. “That’s the radio signal that is a critical piece of how we actually use these devices. And our competitors have had a stronger low-band spectrum. Now we’re going to be able to go toe to toe with our competitors.”

The competition includes Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint, all of which have upgraded their Columbus-area technology and equipment to 4g LTE in recent years.

Blanchard said the 4G LTE being rolled out in the area puts AT&T on a level playing field with those rivals, with additional enhancements in cell sites and equipment possibly giving the company an edge within the next year or two. He also said without the technology upgrades, the Columbus area would continue to fall behind the rest of the U.S.

“The truth is we want to be a competitive city with the rest of the nation, and to do that we have to have these infrastructure assets in place,” he said, thanking city and state officials for helping clear the way for more towers and cell sites.

4G LTE, or “fourth-generation long-term evolution,” is the current industry standard for technology used to not only connect basic voice calls, but also to provide the high-speed data transmission used for today’s array of technology gadgets.

AT&T’s Smith said his company has invested nearly $5 billion in its wireless footprint across Georgia since 2011.

The improved technology is no longer something simply nice to have, he said, citing statistics that indicate at least 50 percent of U.S. adults have smartphones and an average of 500,000 customers are dropping traditional land-line service each month. Less than 30 percent of households have land-line service now, he said.

Streaming video, downloading data, using applications, and recreational purposes such as gaming all are growing in popularity, Smith said of the proliferation of new technology.

“It’s all driven by demand,” he said.

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