AT&T launches consumer 5G in 10 cities, but expects only 5GE-like speeds

Less than a month ago, AT&T promised to launch its first 5G network for consumers across five markets “in the coming weeks,” and now it’s expanding on that promise. The carrier announced that it’s actually launching its consumer 5G network across 10 U.S. cities today, including five additional locations that weren’t originally scheduled to go live until 2020.

Users in Birmingham, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Providence, Rochester, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Diego will be able to start using AT&T’s consumer 5G network today, assuming they purchase a Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G customized for the carrier. As previously noted, the phone carries a $1,300 MSRP, but AT&T is temporarily offering it for as little as $350, so long as users select qualifying unlimited and installment payment plans and trade in an existing device. Customers who preordered the phone in November will begin to receive their phones today.

The catch with AT&T’s consumer 5G service is that the carrier is telling customers to expect speeds “comparable to 5G Evolution speeds at the time of launch,” which won’t be much of an incentive to potential upgraders. Over the past year, AT&T controversially rebranded the late-stage 4G technologies included in certain Android phones and iPhones as “5G Evolution,” leading to poor initial reviews and outcry from competitors, along with an expectation that AT&T’s true 5G network would deliver superior performance.

But the carrier is using 850MHz low band frequencies for its 5G offering, while reserving millimeter wave high band frequencies for business users of its “5G+” network. Confusingly, users who purchase the Galaxy Note10+ 5G won’t be able to access AT&T’s 5G+ network, while purchasers of the Galaxy S10+ 5G won’t be able to access AT&T’s 5G network. Both devices can connect to AT&T’s 3G, 4G, and 5GE towers, and future devices presumably will be able to use all of AT&T’s resources.

Today’s announcement leaves six cities in AT&T’s early 2020 5G launch collection: Boston, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Las Vegas, Louisville, and New York City. One of today’s launch cities, Los Angeles, wasn’t originally included in the carrier’s lists, but it now includes both 5G and 5G+ coverage, including in parts of West Hollywood. 5G and LTE coverage maps for the other cities can be seen here.

Following deployments in those cities, and perhaps others, AT&T reiterates that it will offer nationwide low band 5G coverage in the first half of 2020. The carrier says that its 5G+ network is presently available in parts of 23 cities, offering significantly faster speeds, but “with very limited coverage.” In our testing of low and high band 5G networks, high band currently peaks at performance levels roughly 10 times faster than low band — 2Gbps versus 225Mbps — though AT&T notes that its low band 5G towers offer wide-scale coverage across several-mile areas, while its high band 5G service only covers several blocks.

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