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AT&T 5G rollout: Everything you need to know

Steven Winkelman

AT&T won the cutthroat competition with Verizon to be the first carrier to offer 5G — sort of. Just months after Verizon launched a pre-standards version of fixed 5G, AT&T deployed mobile 5G NR in a handful of areas across the U.S. Who was first with “real” 5G, winning the race? Who cares? With either network, consumers enjoy blazing fast speeds — and lots more.

So what is 5G, anyway? The fifth generation of wireless network, or 5G, has been nearly a decade in the making, and it’s finally becoming a reality. Promising dramatically faster speeds, instantaneous communication, and the ability to network everything, 5G has incredible potential. Limited rollout of the service began in select cities in 2018, and mobile 5G will start appearing in cities around the U.S. in 2019, with much more comprehensive rollouts expected in 2020. For its part, AT&T has promised to deploy a standards-based nationwide mobile 5G network in early 2020, and has already announced a handful of devices that will work on it.

AT&T will be developing 5G through three “core 5G pillars.” Those pillars include mobile 5G, fixed 5G, and edge computing — all of which will play a big role in 5G development as time goes on.

Here’s everything you need to know about AT&T’s 5G rollout.

Mobile 5G

Although we’re not likely to see any 5G smartphones on the market for several months, AT&T has a different deployment strategy. It started its rollout using a 5G hotspot in 12 cities in late 2018. Eight more cities will get 5G in early 2019 as AT&T continues its nationwide rollout, and the company says it’ll have 5G in 21 states by the end of 2019. Here are all the cities confirmed so far.

5G versus 5G E

AT&T has been castigated recently over plans to rebrand certain 4G phones as “5G E” phones. The company argues that many technologies deeply linked to the faster 5G networks have already been introduced on the company’s existing 4G network.

Critics call it misleading, and aimed at convincing users that they’re using the latest and greatest tech when really they’re not. AT&T Senior Vice President for Wireless Technology Igal Elbaz defended its practices recently, arguing that “what we’re trying to do is let [consumers] know that there is an enhanced experience in their market.”

Even other carriers are up in arms about 5G E — Sprint has sued AT&T over the 5G E branding, arguing that it’s misleading, and that it does damage to other carriers, like Sprint, because many consumers don’t know that 5G E isn’t “real” 5G.

Despite the lawsuit, AT&T is sticking to its guns. In a recent interview with ZDNet, AT&T Business CEO Thaddeus Arroyo said that the 5G E service is distinctly different from what will be AT&T’s 5G offering, but that 5G E was the foundation upon which 5G will be built. Arroyo continued on to say that “customers love” being connected to 5G E as it signals that they’re getting faster (4G LTE) speeds, and that customers “want faster speeds.”

2018

AT&T launched 5G in 12 cities across the U.S.: Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Waco. Service is initially limited to pre-selected customers and will be provided for free for at least 90 days.

2019

The carrier plans to follow up on its 12-city rollout in early 2019 by adding seven more cities to the mix: Orlando, Las Vegas, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. The carrier also plans on bringing 5G to the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where it says the connectivity will transform the fan experience by allowing for better engagement opportunities, VR, and more. After announcing these cities, AT&T added a few more too — it will now roll out its mobile 5G service to Minneapolis and Chicago as well, and expects to have its “nationwide” 5G service available by early 2020.

At CES 2019, AT&T announced a partnership with Rush System for Health for 5G-enabled hospitals in Chicago, which will be used for various medical testing. The goal here is to create the “hospital of the future,” where MRIs can be downloaded in a matter of a few seconds and rooms can be intelligently scheduled.

Although AT&T will have 5G service in cities around the country by early 2019, it’s worth noting the service will likely be spotty. Expect to see the initial rollout in heavily trafficked areas like city centers, airports, and stadiums at first.

Network

To offer the fastest speeds with the lowest latency, AT&T will initially deploy its 5G network on a millimeter wave spectrum (mmWave). While mmWave can offer the fastest 5G service, it isn’t the most reliable.

High-band spectrum like mmWave doesn’t cover a large area and has relatively poor penetration. Over the next several years, AT&T will build out its 5G network around the country with small cells, and deploy service on more hearty spectrum bands. Until the rollout is complete, the service will piggyback off its robust LTE network.

AT&T says most customers are getting speeds of around 400Mbps on the parts of its 5G network that have been deployed so far. The company says it has observed speeds of up to 1.5Gbps — which is very impressive, and lives up to what we expect to eventually see from 5G.Mobile Hardware

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In terms of hardware, AT&T has an aggressive release schedule ahead for 2019. So far, the carrier is on track to release three pieces of hardware for 2019, though we wouldn’t be surprised to see more announcements in the coming months.

In December, the carrier announced two 5G-capable smartphones for 2019. A Samsung-branded 5G smartphone operating on AT&Ts mmWave network will be released in the spring of 2019; Toward the end of 2019, AT&T will release another Samsung 5G smartphone with multi-band support.

Earlier this year AT&T announced the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot for its initial 5G rollout. Although AT&T has not confirmed any additional pucks, it’s likely we’ll see a handful throughout 2019.

Since 2019 will likely be a busy year for 5G hardware, you’ll want to check back often to see if your favorite smartphone manufacturer has confirmed hardware compatible with your carrier. We created a special page with all the currently confirmed 5G smartphones to help you out.

Fixed 5G

Along with Verizon, AT&T was supposed to be one of the first carriers to roll out fixed 5G. In late 2018, things changed. The carrier announced it would initially deploy fixed LTE on the Citizens Band Radio Spectrum (CBRS) in 2019, and migrate to 5G coverage at some point in the future.

Fixed Wireless Hardware

AT&T has not announced any hardware for its fixed broadband service.

Updated on February 28, 2019: AT&T says that customers “love” 5G E.