AT&T's 5G network is coming into focus this year.
The carrier was early to launch its 5G efforts, with a high-speed network that came on line at the end of 2018, even if that particular service wasn't available to regular customers. AT&T spent 2019 expanding its 5G footprint, using different types of 5G technology.
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Now, halfway through 2020, AT&T is continuing to build out its 5G network, with the expectation that it will have national reach by the end of the year. AT&T is covering both ends of the 5G spectrum, with low-band coverage that has extensive reach and higher-speed service available in select areas.
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 initial 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 May 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 now reaches 190 markets, covering 120 million people. (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 on track to deliver nationwide reach with its 5G service between the summer and end 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 changed 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.
In May, the National Advertising Division came down hard on AT&T for 5GE's capacity to mislead, ruling that the carrier should discontinue the name, according to Ars Technica. AT&T responded by agreeing to end 5GE advertising, even though it "respectfully disagreed" with the NAD's findings. Nevertheless, 5GE indicators will still continue to be displayed on AT&T devices that support those LTE Advanced features for the time being.
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 2019, 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 that same year, 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, rather, it would be if that was a sustained speed.)
We didn't see that kind of performance 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 a mobile hotspot, Netgear's Nighthawk 5G device, 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 in June 2019, but only corporate customers with a Business Unlimited Preferred plan could buy the phone at the time.
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 still 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 has knocked that price down to $15 per month as part of a limited time offer.
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, though AT&T has a current promotion that slashes that monthly cost. 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
2020 has brought 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. 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 @ AT&T
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 5G is available now, too. That 5G-ready phone costs $899 and features a second screen that you can attach. A current promotion at AT&T lets you have the V60 for $10 a month over 30 months when you sign up for a qualified unlimited data plan.
LG V60 ThinQ: $899 @AT&T
Open a new line at AT&T, and you can get the LG V60 ThinQ for free in the form of monthly bill credits. You're also eligible to get a second screen attachment for free with your phone.View Deal
What you’ll pay for AT&T’s 5G
With AT&T having launched 5G in a decent number of cities now, we 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. See how AT&T's pricing compares in our look at the best unlimited data plan for each wireless carrier.
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 5G outlook
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. Even after its recent expansion to 190 markets, AT&T's 5G service is well short of the 5,000 cities and 200 million people T-Mobile says are covered by its 5G network.
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.
The second half of 2020 also looks to be an important period in AT&T's 5G development, as the carrier expects to roll out dynamic spectrum sharing in the months ahead. This technology will allow AT&T to use the same spectrum channel for both 5G and LTE, but give priority to one or the other based on network conditions. While FierceWireless notes that DSS won't add to AT&T's 5G capacity, it could expedite the carrier's transition from a mostly LTE-based network to a mostly 5G-based one.