Having launched preliminary 5G services using millimeter wave hardware in late 2018, AT&T has technically been operating a 5G network for a year and a half — but between the “5G+” network’s few connection points and extremely limited hardware support, most people in the U.S. couldn’t actually use it. Today, AT&T says its low band 5G network is officially available nationwide, reaching a potential 205 million customers across 395 coverage markets. The carrier is also making 5G service available to a wider range of customers at no additional charge.
On a positive note, AT&T is now the second U.S. carrier with a nationwide 5G network, joining T-Mobile, which launched a similarly large offering in December 2019 using long distance but slow low band towers. But T-Mobile’s low band 5G peaks at speeds around 225Mbps, nowhere near the 2Gbps peaks seen in Verizon’s all but unusably small 5G network, while promising only a 20% improvement over 4G speeds on average. AT&T’s low band 5G network is expected to deliver comparable performance but is using a technology called DSS to dynamically split prior 4G spectrum between 4G and 5G phones as user demand fluctuates.
For consumers, one arguable benefit of the low band 5G strategy is that carriers aren’t attempting to add 5G-specific surcharges, since the performance difference doesn’t justify paying more. Starting on August 7, AT&T says 5G access will become available at no extra cost to Unlimited Starter plan customers, starting at $35 per month for four lines, as well as Unlimited Web-Only and Starter enterprise plans, so users interested in 5G access won’t need to opt for higher-end Unlimited offerings. However, T-Mobile yesterday introduced a “limited time” $100 deal on a four-line 5G Essentials plan, hinting at the price competition over 5G service that’s likely to continue through the 2020 holiday season.
Devices compatible with AT&T’s 5G include the Samsung Galaxy S20 family, Note10+ 5G, and A71 5G, as well as LG’s V60 and Velvet 5G. The 5G version of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip folding phone will also support AT&T’s 5G network when it becomes available.
For many users, choosing between AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 5G networks will come down to a couple of questions: “Is 5G available where I live and either work or attend school?” and “How much do I like my current carrier?” While each of those carriers’ networks is purportedly “nationwide,” the threshold for that claim isn’t actually 100% coast-to-coast coverage, but rather network access for a majority of the U.S. population. Some cities will have T-Mobile 5G coverage but only 4G from AT&T, while others will have strong AT&T 5G with slower T-Mobile 5G. Similarly Verizon is presently delivering higher-speed 5G service to half of 1% of the U.S. population but said it expects to offer 5G in 50% of the U.S. by year’s end.
Loyalty will also play a role. This week, AT&T shocked some customers with an email telling them they must upgrade their phones to newer models to avoid losing AT&T network access — the consequence of its decision to discontinue 3G service in early 2022, roughly 18 months from now. The abrupt, arguably unnecessary notice angered existing customers, raising the risk that they’ll switch not only devices but also carriers over the next year.