AT&T fuels 5G ambitions with $1.6B Straight Path buy

The company holds high-frequency radio licenses key to deploying superfast wireless technology.

AT&T wants a leg up in the 5G race.
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AT&T just made its 5G ambitions a little closer to reality.

The telecommunications giant said Monday that it will acquire Straight Path Communications. The little-known company holds a swath of nationwide high-frequency radio licenses in the 39 gigahertz and 28 gigahertz bands.

That spectrum will be crucial if AT&T wants to deploy a large-scale wireless network running on 5G. The next-generation technology is expected to bring an ultra-fast connection, but it requires far higher frequency spectrum than what current wireless technology uses. (Much of the LTE in the US is powered by 700 megahertz spectrum).

So don't hold your breath just yet -- 5G is still well over the horizon for most of us. AT&T has said it will build "5G testbeds" in Austin, Texas, in the coming months, while rival Verizon has plans to introduce 5G trial runs in a handful of test markets in the US this year. But widespread coverage by any carrier is likely two or more years away. When it does arrive, carriers enjoy telling us, the speed and responsiveness will spur advances in everything from self-driving cars to remote surgery.

AT&T agreed to buy Straight Path for $1.6 billion, which includes debt and an amount owed to the Federal Communication Commission. Straight Path shareholders will receive $1.25 billion.

The deal is expected to close within 12 months.