With its “end of 2018” deadline for launching a 12-city 5G network now precariously close, AT&T has announced a partnership with Cradlepoint to offer several different “5G Evolution” routers that deliver fast 4G today — with the promise of supporting faster 5G speeds in the future. The announcement gives AT&T the ability to start selling 5G-upgradeable hardware nationwide without actually guaranteeing 5G network service in a given area.

Cradlepoint’s routers are exclusively available to two AT&T customer bases: business users, and subscribers to the FirstNet service for first responders. They come in the following versions:

  • IBR900-1200M and IBR1700-1200M are both ruggedized mobile routers for in-vehicle use, featuring gigabit-capable LTE Advanced Pro modems, Wi-Fi 5, GPS, and integrated firewalls. The smaller IBR-900 has two Gigabit Ethernet ports and dual-concurrent Wi-Fi, while the larger IBR-1200 has five Gigabit Ethernet Ports, tri-band Wi-Fi, and a more precise GPS.
  • AER2200-1200M is a “branch router” for small- to medium-sized businesses and police stations. It includes an LTE Advanced Pro modem, dual-concurrent Wi-Fi 5, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports.
  • MC400-1200M is a modular LTE Advanced Pro modem with dual SIM slots and integrated GPS. It’s designed to enable otherwise incompatible Cradlepoint routers to access AT&T’s FirstNet and 5G Evolution cellular networks.

On a positive note, the features and performance promised by the 5G Evolution devices are likely to be at least adequate for current deployments. The vehicular routers will enable everything from taxi cabs to emergency response vehicles to obtain precise GPS locations and up to 1Gbps of data performance, with FirstNet subscribers enjoying enhanced security and prioritized communications.

That peak 1Gbps speed, however, is only available in the “parts of 31 cities” that have AT&T’s obscure LTE-LAA network, with “more than 400” 5G Evolution markets peaking at a lower speed of 400Mbps. Small businesses with basic connectivity needs may be able to rely on 400Mbps for everything they need today, but multiple concurrent users could easily choke an LTE modem.

Left unclear from the announcement is the actual 5G upgrade path for Cradlepoint customers. AT&T says that the routers use a “modular modem design” that will let customers “easily upgrade” to 5G, and says that the companies are “collaborating on the development of 5G solutions” for this purpose. One way to read this is that the 5G upgrade will involve hardware, not just software, and that it won’t necessarily be free of charge.

A Cradlepoint spokesperson says that the Cradlepoint 5G Evolution routers will be available only on the AT&T and FirstNet networks until March 2019. Pricing for the hardware has not been disclosed.