Every wireless carrier is in a race to the new 5G networking standard, though they're going about it in different ways. AT&T is banking on 5G hotspots to roll out its next-generation wireless network in 2019, and it just announced a landmark step toward that goal.
This week, AT&T says it completed the first 5G connection between a consumer-ready device — in this case, Netgear's upcoming Nighthawk 5G mobile hotspot — and a live millimeter-wave 5G network. Carriers have run all kinds of 5G trials before, but this one matters to you for one very good reason.
Previous 5G tests have been conducted with non standards-compliant hardware, in highly specialized scenarios. In other words, they either weren't using products you could buy, or they weren't running on infrastructures that existed outside of laboratories and test chambers. The fact that AT&T's successful test in Waco, Texas, this week was conducted using production-ready hardware means that 5G's arrival isn't merely closer than its ever been before; it's practically at our doorstep.
This is welcome news for anyone tired of theoretical techno-babble about what 5G will or could enable in the future. However, AT&T's press release (opens in new tab) doesn't list the speed of the transmission, nor the particular kind of content loaded — just that it was the test consisted of a "browsing session." Some tangible metrics would have been nice, though AT&T, like every other carrier, is surely still ironing out all those pesky little details.
Additionally, critics will note that AT&T is relying on a hotspot, not a mobile phone. That's a stepping stone to 5G that other carriers, like Verizon and Sprint, want to skip entirely. Verizon is working on a 5G Moto Mod for the Moto Z3 modular smartphone, while Sprint has announced a partnership with LG to deliver an exclusive 5G handset of its own next year. Both of these devices will presumably use the same Qualcomm X50 5G modem that powers the Netgear Nighthawk.
Right now, Verizon in particular seems to be more concerned with residential 5G, after flipping the switch on its 5G Home service for select customers in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento earlier this month. Big Red has stayed mostly quite on its mobile 5G plans, but AT&T conversely says it is still planning to launch its mobile network in 12 cities before the end of the year and bring the list up to 19 by "early 2019."