AT&T kept busy on the 5G front last year. Now the question looming is what that means for the wireless carrier’s network plans in 2021.
For now, the focus appears to be on continuing the progress that AT&T made in the last year — efforts that included launching a nationwide 5G service to augment its high-speed deployments in three dozen cities and adding more 5G devices to its phone lineup.
While AT&T’s 5G network reaches more than 225 million people in 14,000 cities and towns across the U.S., it still trailers rival carriers. T-Mobile currently covers 270 million people while Verizon’s nationwide coverage reaches 230 million despite launching after AT&T’s.
In other words, AT&T still has a long way to go in building out 5G coverage. Here’s where the network stands at the start of 2021.
AT&T 5G bands
First off, it’s critical to explain how AT&T splits its 5G service up. There’s the nationwide sub-6GHz service mentioned above, which offers speeds about as fast, if not slightly better than 4G LTE. In spite of AT&T’s “nationwide” banner, this isn’t available everywhere yet, though it’s much more common to find than AT&T’s 5G Plus network, which involves a completely different kind of technology.
5G Plus is AT&T’s name for its millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G infrastructure. When you hear carriers advertise data speeds in excess of 1 Gbps or downloading entire movies or seasons of TV shows in a minute, this is the kind of 5G they’re referring to. But while millimeter-wave 5G offers exponentially faster speeds than sub-6GHz 5G or 4G LTE, it is exponentially more limited in terms of range, which is why it’s only available in cities or high-traffic indoor spaces.
AT&T 5G cities and coverage map
AT&T’s 5G Plus can only be found in 36 cities in 18 states at the time of this writing. California has the most 5G Plus-supported cities by far, at 9 of the total 36. You can find a comprehensive list on AT&T’s website. Of course, you will also need a compatible 5G-supported phone to benefit from 5G coverage — more on that later.
AT&T’s long-range 5G service covers more than 225 million Americans, according to the carrier. That pales somewhat to T-Mobile’s 5G, though both networks are actively growing all the time.
AT&T 5G speeds
AT&T’s 5G infrastructure has made significant strides over the past two years. Initially, the carrier’s 5G Plus service topped out at 400 Mbps. In February 2019, AT&T reported that had improved to a peak throughput of 2 Gbps on its commercial network in Atlanta. That is fast enough to download a 2-hour HD film in 10 seconds.
Unfortunately, we didn’t quite see that kind of performance when we conducted hands-on testing of AT&T’s 5G Plus service in Las Vegas in the summer of 2019. At that time, we recorded peak speeds just shy of 1 Gbps — far better than LTE, of course, but a good sight off the 1.5 Gbps average speed claims the carrier had made at the time. Additionally, it was very difficult to track down a signal in our experience, owing to 5G Plus’ limited range.
AT&T’s standard 5G service, built on sub-6GHz infrastructure, is far easier to locate, in exchange for speeds a fraction as fast. As a point of comparison, T-Mobile’s 5G network is built on the same low-band spectrum AT&T uses for its nationwide network (that is, not 5G Plus), and the speeds we’ve seen there are at best only slightly faster than what we get from LTE.
In fact, oftentimes 5G speeds are barely quicker than LTE. Case in point, OpenSignal’s recent report on the average download speeds of the nation’s major 5G networks found AT&T finishing second among the Big Four at 60.8 Mbps. That’s hardly a generational leap when you consider that the fastest LTE Advanced signals can carry three to four times that throughput. Verizon came in first, averaging 494 Mbps, though of course its reliance on faster mmWave towers skews the comparison somewhat.
In terms of availability, AT&T finished third at 10.3% of its subscribers able to connect to 5G, with T-Mobile and Sprint coming first and second at 22% and 14%, respectively. T-Mobile and Sprint have joined forces since this study was conducted, so you can figure T-Mobile’s reach has grown since then.
AT&T 5G phones and devices
Most new flagship phones arriving throughout 2020 supported AT&T’s 5G network, though the type of 5G they work with differed on a case-by-case basis. Some handsets, like last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20, only offer sub-6GHz connectivity and skip out on millimeter-wave signals. Other phones, like the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, support both 5G configurations, for the fastest possible speeds in any condition.
You may have noticed a theme there. Indeed, the vast majority of 5G handsets available last year and through AT&T featured Samsung devices. But that finally changed with October’s iPhone 12 launch.
All four iPhone 12 models work on the full range of AT&T’s 5G deployment, across sub-6GHz and mmWave. They are even said to support a new type of 5G infrastructure called C-band, which will provide AT&T users with the sort of mid-band service that offers higher speeds than LTE with a slight hit to coverage, like T-Mobile currently has.
AT&T also offers a pretty compelling range of 5G phones at various price points. Here’s a round-up of the 5G devices you can get through the carrier.
AT&T 5G hotspots
AT&T’s first 5G-compatible product was actually the Netgear Nighthawk, a hotspot that could pull in a 5G signal and blast it to your supported devices over Wi-Fi. This device was ultimately discontinued, but now AT&T has replaced that with a successor, called the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot Pro. You’ll find it among the best mobile hotspots currently available.
The new Nighthawk model supports Wi-Fi 6, meaning you’ll lose as little speed as possible from that 5G connection when tethering. It also can service up to 32 devices. The Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot Pro goes on sale Sept. 18 for $509.
AT&T’s Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite plans include hotspot data. But the allotment of hotspot data — 30GB for Elite and 15GB for Extra — runs at 4G speeds.
AT&T 5G plans: What you’ll pay
Here’s the good news: AT&T doesn’t charge extra for 5G service across its three unlimited plans. However, depending on how much you spend and what tier you select, you’ll get more or less full-speed data before AT&T starts throttling you or deprioritizing your service behind that of other users.
The base $65/month Unlimited Starter plan slows your service at any time when AT&T’s network is stressed. That means that although it includes 5G service, the consistency of that service may be in flux from moment to moment. To get the best possible data speeds, you’ll want to at least choose the $75/month Unlimited Extra plan, which allots 50GB of full-speed data, whether you’re on 4G or 5G. The $85/month Unlimited Elite plan doubles that allotment to 100GB before you run the risk of being slowed. See how AT&T’s pricing compares in our look at the best unlimited data plan for each wireless carrier.
AT&T 5G outlook
More than two years since AT&T launched its first 5G Plus market, the carrier’s 5G deployment has finally reaching a point where many of its customers can take advantage of it. That’s thanks to the launch of the carrier’s nationwide sub-6GHz network as well as the rash of 5G-capable phones that have been dropping throughout the past year.
AT&T customers living in an urban area covered by both the carrier’s regular and 5G Plus services have the unique opportunity to take advantage of both faster speeds and more extensive coverage. And that will only continue in the coming months, as AT&T expands the reach of both types of 5G infrastructure.
Like Verizon, AT&T plans to boost its 5G development with dynamic spectrum sharin. This technology will allow AT&T to use the same spectrum channel for both 5G and LTE, but give priority to one or the other based on network conditions. While DSS won’t necessarily add to AT&T’s 5G capacity, it could expedite the carrier’s transition from a mostly LTE-based network to a mostly 5G-based one in the years ahead, as progressively more people buy 5G handsets.