AT&T lit up its first mobile 5G network at the end of the 2018, but it is only available in 12 markets currently (Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Louisville, Ky., Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio and Waco, Texas). AT&T is using 39 MHz spectrum, with theoretical peak speeds of around 1.2 Gbps (AT&T will later expand add 28 MHz spectrum), but is this really all we can expect from 5G?
At the Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui late last year, the most that AT&T could muster with Snapdragon X50 5G modems was around 140 Mbps in controlled conditions. Early testing from customers that have actually be able to AT&T 5G service and a Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot have also witnessed far slower speeds.
We have to realize, however, that we are still in the infancy of the 5G rollout, so we should expect to see inconsistent speeds until hardware matures and cellular base station coverage improves. However, when all of the cogs in this 5G machine are turning properly, Qualcomm representatives told us that we should regularly see download speeds of 5 Gbps and uploads of around 500 Mbps.
In contrast, with an AT&T 4G LTE connection in the Raleigh, NC area, I'm seeing downloads speeds of 141 Mbps and upload speeds of 55.8 Mbps, so we're just not there yet.
5G wireless doesn't just mean faster overall speeds and lower latencies for consumers, but it also brings increased capacity for carriers. Home-based 4G LTE internet services aren't widespread in the U.S. because carriers simply don't have the capacity to cater to the amount of data that Americans can consume in a day, week, or month. Between the increasing numbers of cord cutters that rely on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and DirecTV Now, to gaming, to multi-gig downloads to keep our smartphones and PCs updates, 4G infrastructure simply wasn't designed to handle that sort of punishment.
To that end, Verizon rolled out its commercial Verizon 5G Home service in October 2018 using the 28 MHz spectrum. The service is currently only operational in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento for fixed home connections. According to the company, customers can expect typical network speeds of between 300 Mbps and 1 Gbps for their $70/month outlay (no data caps).
Although Verizon has yet to launch an operational mobile 5G network, the company has already announced that it will make available Inseego MiFi 5G NR Mobile Hotspots for customers, which are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 SoC and Snapdragon X50 5G modem.
But what about T-Mobile and Sprint? The companies are currently in the middle of a merger (pending regulatory approval), but T-Mobile CEO John Legere has made it clear that his company is not rushing to be the first with a 5G mobile network. Instead, T-Mobile is taking the slow approach to make sure that customers have a more consistent 5G experience nationwide instead of the patchwork system currently in place with AT&T and Verizon.
"Unlike the other guys, T-Mobile is focused on building a 5G network that is nationwide and mobile… built for EVERYONE… not just a few people on a certain block of a certain neighborhood in a certain city," said T-Mobile in late December. "Customers will be able to access T-Mobile’s 5G network when smartphones are available next year, and they’ll have nationwide 5G in 2020."
But it's not just 5G that is making headlines these days, AT&T has also drawn attention for all the wrong reasons with its 5G Evolution (5GE) network. 5GE is just a speed-boosted extension of AT&T's existing 4G LTE network and is in no way related to true 5G wireless networks. However, A&T is using the 5GE naming convention to fool customers into believing that they are getting something that they aren't. To make matters worse, AT&T begin pushing out carrier updates to select Android phones that changed their 4G LTE logos in the status bar to 5GE -- unfortunately, some customers thought that they had magically received a 5G upgrade.
Needless to say, AT&T's competitors quickly called foul over AT&T's power play. "We’re calling on the broad wireless industry to commit to labeling something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities. Verizon is making this commitment today," said Verizon. "We won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5.
"We will not call our 4G network a 5G network if customers don’t experience a performance or capability upgrade that only 5G can deliver."
T-Mobile took a more dramatic and humorous stance with this tweet mocking AT&T's 5GE antics:
didn’t realize it was this easy, brb updating pic.twitter.com/dCmnd6lspH— T-Mobile (@TMobile) January 7, 2019
For its part, AT&T is simply unbothered -- at all. It sees this as a strategic decision and makes no apologies for its approach. "If I now occupy beachfront real estate in our competitors' heads, that makes me smile," said AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan as he mocked his competitors.
"Every company is guilty of building a narrative of how you want the world to work. And I love the fact that we broke our industry's narrative two days ago, and they're frustrated and gonna do what they're gonna do."
Unfortunately, AT&T's misinformation campaign won't do anything to better educate customers about the rollout and benefits of 5G; it simply muddies the waters. In a survey of 2,500 consumers conducted by PCMag, 17 percent of respondents said that they have 5G connectivity, which is a near impossibility at this point (5G smartphones haven’t even been released yet). And four out of 5 Americans have no clue what 5G is, or what it means in terms of immediate benefits (like speed improvements) or future benefits (like entire new business opportunities that can leverage 5G infrastructure). There’s a potential for tiny, low-power 5G enabled devices to open up a whole world of possibilities for healthcare, security, autonomous vehicles and entire smart cities.
In the short-term, Verizon has announced that it will launch two 5G-capable smartphones during the first half of 2019, and AT&T will also at least one Samsung-branded 5G smartphone. According to T-Mobile, “customers will be able to access T-Mobile’s 5G network when smartphones are available [in 2019].”
While we are sure to see a number of 5G devices launching during 2019, it probably won’t be until mid-2020 before we start truly seeing the benefits that this next-generation wireless standard will bring. By then, network coverage will likely be dramatically improved and we should be seeing second-generation 5G hardware with improved performance and lower power consumption.