In January, AT&T said it would launch a 5G wireless network in 2018. On Tuesday, the company said it would meet that target—barely—by launching a 5G service in parts of 12 cities starting Friday. Even in those cities, though, few people will be able to use the service anytime soon.
Eventually, 5G is expected to deliver speeds around 200 times faster than today’s 4G wireless networks. For now, though, AT&T’s new network, dubbed 5G+, and a 5G home wireless network launched by Verizon in five cities in October, will be nowhere near that fast, and only be available in limited areas.
AT&T says it will first offer its service in parts of Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Antonio; and Waco, Texas. Verizon offers its 5G Home service, which only works in fixed locations, in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, California.
Neither company would offer details about service locations in these cities. Even if you’re within a coverage area for AT&T’s 5G+, it could be a while before you’re actually able to use it. No US smartphones can connect to 5G networks yet, so those hoping to use 5G+ will need a specific Wi-Fi hot spot, the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. Like 3G and 4G hotspots, this gadget will act as a mobile Wi-Fi router that you could then connect to your smartphone or laptop. But AT&T says it only has a limited supply of those devices, which it will offer to a few eligible customers; everyone else will have to wait until spring.
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AT&T isn’t saying how fast the 5G+ network will be, but says its theoretical maximum speed is just shy of 1 gigabit per second. Verizon’s 5G Home network advertises a maximum speed of about the same. That would make the two services comparable to Google Fiber, if—and this is a big if—the networks could maintain the higher end of those speeds as more people use the services. But it’s far short of the 10-gigabit connections 5G could one day provide.
Today’s 4G technology can, in theory, provide 1 gigabit speeds. But 5G networks will be more up to the task, in part because they will be able to use the “millimeter wave” range of the wireless spectrum, where far more bandwidth is available. AT&T and Verizon both claim to use the millimeter-wave spectrum for these new 5G networks.
AT&T offers another service it calls 5G Evolution, which it says will be available in 400 markets by the end of the year. But the wireless technologies AT&T says it uses for this service are actually parts of a 4G standard called LTE Advanced that is already used by T-Mobile, leading some critics to call it a “fake” 5G network.
The speeds AT&T advertisers for 5G Evolution are about half of what the company and Verizon both cite as the maximum speeds of the newer 5G services.