Updated, March 7: AT&T has opened its 5G Plus network to all users with the arrival of the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra.
AT&T’s strategy for its new 5G network came into focus early in 2019: The wireless carrier was the first to roll out mobile 5G, with an eye toward offering the largest 5G network. And now AT&T is in the next stage of making that happen, with ever-expanding nationwide coverage built on different types of 5G technology.
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AT&T flipped the switch on high-speed 5G service in a dozen cities in December 2018, growing to 25 cities a year later. But that service had its limits. The only devices that could take advantage of the faster 5G speeds included a mobile hotspot, Netgear’s Nighthawk, and the Galaxy S10 5G. Those devices were only available initially to customers with corporate accounts with AT&T.
That's now changed. AT&T has started to build a nationwide 5G network using low band spectrum that delivers slower speeds but more extensive coverage. And with the arrival of Samsung's new 5G-ready Galaxy S20 lineup, AT&T's faster 5G network has been opened up to all users, too.
Here's how AT&T's 5G network is coming into focus and what it means for both performance and wireless data plan prices.
AT&T 5G cities: Where you can get it first
Try to follow along here, because it can get a little confusing. AT&T’s 5G wireless service 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 the spring followed by Las Vegas in June and more cities to close out 2019. We're up to 35 cities as of March 2020.
But those cities offer what AT&T calls 5G Plus — a label for a high-speed 5G network built on millimeter wave technology. Millimeter wave-based 5G networks are fast — as you'll see when we talk speed testing below — but they have limited range, and signals have a hard time passing through physical obstructions.
So AT&T is building out a different 5G experience — this one it simply calls 5G — which went live in 10 cities in early December 2019. This version of 5G, available to all consumers, uses low-band spectrum, which isn't nearly as fast as millimeter wave but provides more consistent coverage.
By the end of 2019, AT&T had brought low-band 5G coverage to 20 cities. That number has grown to 80 cities during the first week of March, after a spate of launches in the first two months of 2020. (AT&T's website lets you click on your state to find out if this 5G network has expanded to your area.)
Expect the 5G network expansion to continue in the coming months, as AT&T is promising a nationwide reach by the midpoint of 2020. That would match the nationwide network T-Mobile launched in December 2019.
Up until March, AT&T had kept its 5G Plus network limited to select customers. The arrival of the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra change that, though. Those phones support both low-band 5G and millimeter wave networks, so AT&T is opening up its 5G Plus coverage to all customers. That means if you have one of Samsung's new phones on AT&T's network, you'll be able to experience both fast 5G Plus speeds (where available) as well as the extensive coverage of AT&T's regular 5G. (The Galaxy S20, also now out, only works on low-band 5G networks.)
What about 5GE?
Confused, yet? Well, we haven't told you about AT&T's other 5G label, which isn't actually 5G at all.
A little more than a year ago, AT&T began replacing the LTE icon on smartphones with a 5GE label in more than 400 markets nationwide. The carrier says that 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. So again, 5GE isn’t 5G. It's there for 5G phones on AT&T's network to fall back on when there's no 5G coverage available.
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.
MORE: It's Official: AT&T's 5GE Is Slower Than Verizon and T-Mobile's 4G LTE
AT&T 5G speeds: How fast is it?
We can only talk definitively about AT&T's 5G Plus service, since that's what we've had a chance to test.
In early testing, the millimeter-wave based 5G Plus network saw speeds of 200-300 megabits per second and as high as 400 Mbps, according to AT&T. By February, the carrier said speeds as fast as 1.5 gigabits per second have been achieved on 5G Plus 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.)
We didn't see that kind of speed when we got to test AT&T's 5G Plus network in Las Vegas last summer, though our results were much faster than LTE (excuse us — 5GE). On 5G Plus, we were able to reach download speeds just shy of 1 Gbps, but a signal was tough to find.
We would expect AT&T's more extensive 5G service to have an easier-to-locate signal, though its speeds won't be nearly so fast. How big a difference will have to wait until we can test AT&T's emerging network. As a point of comparison, T-Mobile's 5G network is built on the same low-band spectrum AT&T uses for its nationwide network (that is, not 5G Plus), and the speeds we've seen there are only slightly faster than what we get from LTE.
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 started offering the Galaxy S10 5G last June, but only corporate customers with a Business Unlimited Preferred plan could buy the phone at the time. On the bright side, AT&T sold the S10 5G for $1,000, which is $300 less than what Verizon charged for the same device.
The Galaxy S10 5G won't work with the low-band spectrum-based 5G network that arrived last December, though. For that, you'll need Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, a 6.8-inch phablet launched last year. You can buy the Note 10 Plus 5G through AT&T, where it costs $1,299 if you buy the phone outright. You can pay off the device over 30 months for $43.34 a month, though AT&T will knock hundreds of dollars off the cost of the phone when you trade-in an eligible device. (New customers can save even more by bringing in their own phone line.)
Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G: $1,299 @ AT&T
You can pay off the phone over 30 months with payments of $43.34 a month. This 6.8-inch phone will work on AT&T's new 5G network, and it offers many of the same features as the regular Note 10 Plus.View Deal
You now have a wider choice of 5G phones at AT&T. The carrier sells the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra at its stores on March 6. And all three of these new Samsung phones offer 5G connectivity, though only the S20 Plus and S20 Ultra work on all of AT&T's 5G networks. Prices start at $999 for the S20, $1,199 for the S20 Plus and an eye-popping $1,399 for the S20 Ultra.
Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra @ ATT
AT&T now sells all three of Samsung's Galaxy S20 models, which offer 5G compatibility. The $999 S20 works on AT&T's low-band network, while the $1,199 S20 Plus and $1,399 are compatible with AT&T's entire spectrum of 5G coverage.View Deal
The LG V60 ThinQ is coming later this spring, and AT&T will sell that 5G phone, too, though a price hasn't been set.
What you’ll pay for AT&T’s 5G
With AT&T launching 5G in more cities, we now have clarity on what you'll pay for the service. The good news: AT&T won't charge customers extra for 5G coverage, as Verizon does for its 5G coverage. However, you will have to opt for one of AT&T's two pricer unlimited data plans.
AT&T's Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite plans will both include 5G coverage. Those plans cost $75 and $85 a month, respectively, for a single line of data. AT&T's cheapest unlimited plan — the $65 a month Unlimited Starter option — isn't eligible for 5G coverage.
Up until now, AT&T customers had to buy a separate plan to get 5G coverage through the Netgear Nighthawk mobile hotspot. AT&T charged $75 a month for 15GB of 5G data.
AT&T may have been quick out of the gate with the December 2018 launch of 5G Plus, but it spent most of last year watching as rival carriers made their service available to more customers. Even with the launch of a broader 5G network that's now expanding, AT&T faces stiff competition as T-Mobile's 5G network based on low-band spectrum also is live. AT&T says its network will cover "tens of millions of people" while T-Mobile says that it can reach 5,000 cities and 200 million people with its 5G coverage.
However, the arrival of the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra have changed things. AT&T customers can now experience both the faster speeds and more extensive coverage offered by different types of 5G technology, provided they're living in an area with both 5G and 5G Plus service. It's a big step toward the future of 5G and its promises of faster performance.