AT&T said that it launched a 12-city commercial 5G network at the end of last year, but after six months, the silence from actual AT&T 5G customers has been deafening: The company said it upped the tally to 19 cities and even hit 2Gbps peak speeds in April but, unlike rivals Verizon and Sprint, has zero smartphones for sale. That didn’t stop CEO John Donovan from declaring AT&T “the world leader” in 5G, though, and “certainly the leader in the U.S.,” during a Credit Suisse conference call this week.
Donovan appears to be suggesting that AT&T’s success can be measured by a different metric than its competitors: It’s not trying to serve consumers “walking in the street trying to find a network,” but instead has “focused on 5G being an enterprise play,” where it simultaneously announces services for cities alongside specific deals.
In Chicago, AT&T targeted 5G for Rush Hospital’s patient intake and ambulatory care, while in Austin, it’s working with Samsung to deploy robotic manufacturing. “So everything that we have done has not been to scattershot a city,” said Donovan. “We haven’t sort of thought about, well, let’s get out of the rural stuff. We have been committed in investing in that enterprise business.”
For consumers, AT&T’s 5G marketing has been at least confusing, if not worse. The company never said that it was going to be exclusively focused on enterprise customers in its early deployment stages, and it rolled out a confusingly labeled “5G Evolution” consumer network that wasn’t actually 5G. When it commenced what it now calls “5G+” service using high-speed, short-range millimeter wave hardware, it said that it was doing so using Netgear Nighthawk 5G Hotspots, but still hasn’t offered them to regular consumers.
Meanwhile, Verizon has deployed 5G in homes and via smartphones in a handful of cities, as has Sprint, which launched 5G networks and devices in four cities last week. While neither company has comprehensive 5G coverage in any of its launch cities, their buildout processes are both public and in progress, while AT&T’s has generally been opaque.
For its part, AT&T has announced only that its initial 5G service pricing is $70 per month for a meager 15GB of data, with 29 cities planned by the end of 2019, and nationwide 5G coverage next year at still unknown prices. Donovan suggested that the company is still looking into consumer pricing, but “the intention we’ve got right now is to look at it as a premium-priced network,” potentially charging additional fees for specific 5G apps, and sharing them with app developers. It may “be more of a three-sided business model than a two-sided business model,” said Donovan. “That’s not really all that clear yet.”