AT&T has claimed a first with the launch on Tuesday of a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G mobile network in the U.S. The service is initially available in 12 cities, but only via a mobile hotspot device, not a mobile phone. The network is live in parts of Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio and Waco, Texas. AT&T said that its service will “evolve very quickly,” and that it plans to expand the service in the first half of 2019 to parts of seven additional cities: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California.
As no 5G phones are yet available, customers can use the service for mobile broadband only. The first supporting device is the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, previewed by AT&T in October using millimeter wave spectrum. AT&T has said it plans to launch two 5G smartphones in 2019, to be made by Samsung.
The operator is offering a select group of businesses and consumers the 5G device plus data usage at no cost for at least 90 days. In the spring of 2019, customers will be able to get the hotspot for US $499.00 upfront and 15 GB of 5G data for US $70.00 a month with no annual commitment.
AT&T’s offering of mobile 5G service may perhaps only generously be termed a “launch,” given that there is no compatible smartphone yet, but it is still meaningful as a harbinger of the coming sea change in high-speed mobile service in the country. It is also meaningful as a show of marketing moxie on the part of the operator, which is now able to claim the honor of being the first U.S. operator to offer mobile 5G, albeit only to laptops.
It is indeed a first, despite Verizon’s launch in October of fixed wireless 5G service. For one thing, the Verizon network is not accessible via mobile hotspots, only via home-based routers, and for another, Verizon’s 5G network is based on a proprietary standard, not the one that the mobile industry worldwide is coming to agree upon, called 5G NR. AT&T’s network uses the 5G NR standards.
AT&T’s offering could be viewed as premature given the lack of device support, but it could also be seen as a way of gradually moving into the new wireless era, to make sure that when the time comes, it will have trouble-shot the system and adjusted it appropriately to users’ needs. Thus the rollout to a select group of businesses and consumers, which can presumably be asked for feedback to be studied carefully.
Offering the service free for 90 days or thereabouts is, of course, a good way to encourage uptake and start building goodwill. After that, the pricing appears to be at a level that will be attractive. Currently, AT&T’s 4G/LTE hotspot package costs US $50.00 a month, versus US $70.00 for the 5G, with 10 GB of data versus 15 GB. In comparing 4G and 5G pricing, though, the key question of real-world speed remains essentially unanswered and, for now, unanswerable. AT&T has stated that the theoretical speed of its 5G is 1.2 Gbps, while acknowledging that actual speeds will be “much slower.” How much slower will become clearer the more the service is used, but at a demonstration at a forum hosted by Qualcomm in Hawaii in early December, AT&T’s 5G signal delivered around 130–140 Mbps, according to a report.
That should not be considered a prediction of what AT&T users will experience in the coming months, because the operator will have far more bandwidth at its disposal with which to achieve higher speeds. Nonetheless, the reception of 5G in the marketplace will hinge on just how fast and consistent its speeds turn out to be in comparison with 4G.