AT&T said today that it expects to have a nationwide mobile 5G footprint in early 2020, potentially beating out T-Mobile, which said previously that it expects to have nationwide 5G in 2020, but not necessarily early 2020. Importantly, the AT&T nationwide 5G network will operate in sub-6 GHz spectrum – a departure from the approach the company is using in its initial 5G markets, where it is using millimeter wave spectrum.
Millimeter wave spectrum can support the highest 5G speeds but has limited range. That means it requires dense cellsite infrastructure, potentially lengthening deployment times.
AT&T announced its nationwide 5G plans in a blog post highlighting recent technology achievements and milestones targeted for 2019. The blog post came out just a week or so after the company created a kerfuffle by launching a 5Ge icon on its phones to indicate when a customer is connected to the company’s 5G Evolution service – a service that offers higher than usual speeds but doesn’t conform to 5G standards.
The 5Ge Kerfuffle
AT&T 5G Evolution, initially launched in 20 cities in early 2017, supports “peak theoretical” speeds up to 400 Mbps with compatible devices by using technologies such as carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM. According to today’s blog post, 5G Evolution is now available in more than 400 markets.
5G Evolution drew considerable criticism at the time it was announced because it wasn’t actually 5G, but that didn’t stop AT&T from launching the 5Ge icon.
Competitors wasted no time in criticizing AT&T for the move. As a Washington Post article notes, T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted that the service was really just LTE-A.
And Verizon took the time to write a blog post and open letter with the headline “When we say 5G, we mean 5G.” In the blog post/ letter, the company urged the 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.”
I use AT&T and live inside the city limits of Chicago, where I would anticipate I could get 5Ge, but my icon still says LTE when I connect – probably because I have an older-model phone that may not be compatible with the 5Ge service. I recall being in a similar situation when I had an iPhone 4s that didn’t work with 4G LTE but did say “4G” when it was using HSPA+. Then, as now, some said AT&T was jumping the gun in using the term “4G” for HSPA+, which wasn’t LTE but did offer a speed boost over existing f 3G technology.
I think it’s actually useful to have different icons for different wireless services. I still get the “4G” icon, even when I’m on my newer phone, when I’m in certain rural areas. As soon as I see it, I know it’s time to give up on the video I’m trying to view — and when I see “LTE,” I know there’s a lot better chance I’ll be able to watch video. And from a marketing point of view, it’s not a bad idea to give customers a reminder that it might be time to get a new phone if their’s can’t access the latest technology.
Having said that, I think AT&T should have used a less misleading and confusing name for 5Ge. Creating a new icon was a good idea, but it shouldn’t have been labeled 5Ge.
AT&T Nationwide 5G
The AT&T nationwide 5G news makes the company the third of the four major carriers – along with T-Mobile and Sprint — to say it will use sub-6 GHz frequencies for nationwide 5G. AT&T is using millimeter wave for its initial 5G cities and previously said it would use lower frequencies for 5G in the future but didn’t say how extensively.
Verizon also has said it will use some lower-frequency bands for 5G but continues to emphasize its plans to use millimeter wave spectrum. Just yesterday Verizon’s wireless president Ronan Dunne said concerns about broad service deployments in the millimeter wave band were overblown and reiterated the technology’s performance advantages.
Verizon already has dense cellsite infrastructure in urban cores, which means that for the most part, new cellsites will only need to be deployed in outer rings around an urban core, he said.