AT&T’s strategy for its new 5G network is clear: The wireless carrier was the first to roll out mobile 5G, and now it wants to be the largest 5G network.
The company flipped the switch on 5G last December in 12 cities. On April 9, seven more cities went online with 5G, and on June 27, AT&T turned on its 5G network in Las Vegas. That brings the total count to more than 20, which is more than any other carrier can currently claim. (There is a caveat: Only parts of Las Vegas have 5G service, and only business subscribers can access the new network.)
But good luck finding a 5G phone that can connect to AT&T’s new network. Right now, the only device that can take advantage of the faster 5G speeds is a mobile hotspot, Netgear’s Nighthawk. The Galaxy S10 5G will soon join that hotspot on AT&T's new network, but only if you've got a corporate account with the carrier.
Here’s what’s really going on with AT&T’s 5G network and phones, when you can expect to take advantage of AT&T’s real 5G — not 5GE — speeds, and how those 5G speeds compare to AT&T's LTE network.
AT&T 5G Cities: Where you can get it first
AT&T’s 5G wireless network was first available in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, San Antonio and Waco, Texas. Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose went online in April. The network went live in Las Vegas in June.
Minneapolis and Chicago, where Verizon’s 5G network is up and running, are also on the list of markets where AT&T will roll out 5G later this year.
What about 5GE?
Last December, AT&T began replacing the LTE icon on smartphones with a 5GE label in more than 400 markets nationwide. The carrier says the new label, what it calls 5G Evolution, describes the technologies that have been deployed on top of LTE that pave the way for 5G. But other carriers use those technologies on their networks, too, and they call them by the less confusing LTE Advanced label. In other words, 5GE isn’t 5G.
A report from network testing firm OpenSignal compared download speeds across LTE Advanced networks from rival carriers and AT&T’s 5GE network and found that AT&T’s 5GE is in some cases slower than those LTE Advanced networks.
How Fast Will AT&T’s 5G Be?
AT&T’s real 5G network will be called network 5G+, as opposed to 5GE.
5G+ will use AT&T’s millimeter-wave spectrum to start, with AT&T claiming speeds of 200-300 megabits per second and as high as 400 MBps in early testing. In February, the carrier said speeds as fast as 1.5 gigabits per second have been achieved on 5G+ using a test device. And in April, AT&T said it hit a peak speed topping 2 Gbps on its commercial network in Atlanta — fast enough to download a 2-hour HD movie in 10 seconds. (Or it would be if that was a sustained speed.)
But millimeter-wave doesn’t extend very far and is designed for high-density areas, so AT&T is building out its sub-6 Ghz spectrum to create a true nationwide 5G network by 2020.
In our tests of AT&T's 5G+ network in Las Vegas, we were able to reach download speeds just shy of 1 Gbps, but a signal was tough to find.
AT&T 5G Phones and Devices
AT&T’s initial 5G device was Netgear’s mobile hotspot, which the carrier says has helped businesses that need to transfer lots of data quickly. As for phones, AT&T will offer the Galaxy S10 5G as of June 17, but only corporate customers with a Business Unlimited Preferred plan will be able to buy the phone. On the bright side, AT&T is selling the S10 5G for $1,000, which is $300 less than what Verizon charges for the phone. (Verizon started offering Samsung's 5G phone to its customers back in May.)
It’s worth noting that AT&T says the second Samsung phone due out later this year will support millimeter-wave and sub-6 spectrum. That means it will benefit from the broader coverage AT&T plans to roll out in 2020.
What You’ll Pay for AT&T’s 5G
AT&T hasn’t disclosed pricing for its 5G smartphone plans, but for early buyers of Netgear’s Nighthawk mobile hotspot, 15GB of 5G data costs $70 a month.
That’s pretty pricey, but it’s unclear how the company’s 5G data plans for phones will compare. AT&T’s currently unlimited data plans for LTE start at $70 a month for a single line.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said during the company's quarterly earnings call April 24 that he expects 5G data plans to be tiered like broadband plans. Customers who want gigabit speeds will be willing to pay a premium, Stephenson said.
AT&T trails Verizon when it comes to having a 5G phone and will likely remain behind Verizon in terms of coverage by the end of 2019, based on the public roadmaps of both carriers. But AT&T is being more aggressive than either Sprint or T-Mobile, and the promised speeds are definitely a step above 4G LTE and so-called 5GE. Stay tuned for more info and our first test results.