AT&T Launches Low-Band 5G: Don't Buy It Until It's Tested -

AT&T Launches Low-Band 5G: Don't Buy It Until It's Tested -

AT&T Launches Low-Band 5G: Don't Buy It Until It's Tested -

Posted: 13 Dec 2019 12:00 AM PST

AT&T launched its low-band 5G network today, offering up a 5G icon for residents of ten metro areas as long as they buy one new phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G. But AT&T is setting them up for massive 5G confusion. This phone won't support the fast millimeter-wave 5G that AT&T has been selling to business customers in 21 cities, and because of the way spectrum allotments work, it may be slower in 5G mode than a Galaxy S10 phone on AT&T's '5G E' 4G network.

All this means you shouldn't buy the new AT&T 5G phone for now. But let's celebrate AT&T before we bury it. AT&T is launching 5G in Birmingham, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Providence, Rochester, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose, with another big set of cities coming "soon" including Boston, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Las Vegas, Louisville, and New York.

This 5G is on the 850MHz band, the oldest cellular band with very wide range and existing coverage. It will stretch far out into surrounding suburbs and deep into buildings. AT&T released some vague but promising coverage maps showing massive area coveragewhen it says "Providence," for instance, it means "most of the state of Rhode Island."

AT&T's coverage map (left) compares favorably with T-Mobile's (right), as you can see below. And AT&T is pushing its Galaxy Note 10+ 5G hard. The phone retails at $1,299.99, but it's down to $999.99 with a trade-in, $799.99 if you put it on a new line, or a crazy $349.99 if you port a line from a different carrier.

T-Mobile and AT&T 5G Maps compared - LA

T-Mobile and AT&T 5G Maps compared - LA

T-Mobile and AT&T 5G Maps Compared - Providence

T-Mobile and AT&T 5G Maps Compared - Providence

At the moment, AT&T has two incompatible 5G networks: a high-speed milllimeter-wave "5G+" network in 23 cities available only to business customers using the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G or Netgear Nighthawk hotspot, and a low-band 5G network available on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G. The carrier also advertises its 4G network as "5G E" on many devices, although it is not 5G.

We've tested AT&T millimeter-wave 5G before, and gotten amazing speeds up to 1.6Gbps, but only in focused hotspots that seem to be around key AT&T business customers or sports venues.

As I'll get to below, AT&T's approach to low-band 5G will likely bring no performance advantage, and in some cases it may be slower than 5G E. So why the heck is AT&T doing this now? Marketing. With its millimeter-wave 5G restricted to business customers, it was the last major carrier to not be selling 5G to consumers. Putting this extremely limited form of 5G out there lets AT&T promote big 5G maps and say it's a technology leader, even when there's no consumer benefit from the move.

How Fast Is It, Really?

AT&T is launching its 5G in the 850MHz band (band n5), and although the company doesn't say how much spectrum it's using, I've heard through the grapevine that it's as little as 5MHz down and 5MHz up. One funny result of this may be that early 5G devices become slower than AT&T's 5G E, its misleading branding for its most advanced 4G technologies.

More than the other major carriers, AT&T relies on piecing together a lot of disparate lanes of wireless spectrum to get good speeds and performance. Depending on where you are, AT&T works on low bands 5, 12, 14 and 29; mid bands 2, 4/66, and 30; high band 46; and millimeter-wave.

One reason the carrier won our 2019 Fastest Mobile Networks award is that this year we saw the first phones that can combine six different lanes of 4G spectrum to maximize AT&T's potluck of airwaves. In 5G mode, as far as we know right now, the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G can only connect with three 4G lanes plus one 5G band, and it can't combine low-band 4G and 5G.

At the narrow channel sizes AT&T and T-Mobile are using, there's no speed advantage to using 5G over 4G technology yet. (Other 5G advantages come later, with low latency, network slicing, quality-of-service measures, and other features arriving later in 2020.)

If AT&T's phones prefer its 5G over 4G, to maintain the 5G icon and marketing position, they drop the ability to hold on to some of AT&T's more arcane band combinations, which would make them slower than 5G E. According to this index, current phones can do five-carrier 4G combinations involving bands 2; 12 or 14; 30; and 66, which the Note 10+ 5G wouldn't be able to do in 5G mode. Low-band 5G also can't combine with 4G band 46 right now.

This wouldn't matter if AT&T was devoting a lot of spectrum to low-band 5G, but if it's only 5MHz down, the phones would be dropping larger 4G channel combinations for a narrower 5G channel, slowing speeds.

We're obviously going to have to test this. It's a really complicated situation that will only play out once people have run hundreds, if not thousands, of tests across the coverage area.

AT&T's situation is different from T-Mobile's low-band 5G position, for several reasons. T-Mobile has a less complex spectrum portfolio and, in many locations, is using more spectrum for 5G. More importantly, though, T-Mobile may be getting access to all of Sprint's mid-band spectrum, which it would swiftly use for city-spanning 5G, and which works with its first low-band phones. AT&T and Verizon don't have any comparable 5G mid-band position and lean much more on short-distance millimeter-wave, which doesn't work on the first low-band phone.

DSS to the Rescue

AT&T's low-band 5G is going to remain very limited until DSS, or dynamic spectrum sharing, gets turned on later in 2020. It's not clear to me whether or not this first phone supports DSS. DSS lets AT&T dynamically use any part of any 4G band for 5G, which will slowly open up 5G capacity on AT&T's diverse 4G bands.

What AT&T needs right now is a set of phones that support its latest 4G technologies, its 23-city millimeter-wave, and DSS 5G. Those are likely coming in February, starting with the Samsung Galaxy S11. Hold out until then.

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AT&T Introduces New 'Unlimited' Data Plans - PCMag

Posted: 01 Nov 2019 12:00 AM PDT

AT&T is set to revamp its unlimited data plans line-up in the coming days with the launch of three new options. Which one you choose depends on how you feel about SD video quality and data throttling.

As Ars Technica reports, the three new plans are called AT&T Unlimited Starter, AT&T Unlimited Extra, and AT&T Unlimited Elite. The first to become available will be AT&T Unlimited Starter this Sunday, which costs $65 per month for a single line, or $35 per line when buying four lines. It's the entry-level plan with unlimited data and therefore has some strict limits including SD quality videos, no ability to turn your phone into a mobile hotspot, and data throttling any time AT&T deems its network is congested.

While cheaper, the Starter plan provides no guarantee you'll have a decent connection speed all the time. To ensure that, you'll need to opt for the AT&T Unlimited Extra plan launching on Nov. 3, which costs $75 for a single line or $40 if buying four lines. Video is still limited to SD quality, but you get 50GB of data before any throttling can happen and 15GB of mobile hotspot data.

If that still isn't good enough, or you're a heavy mobile data user, then the AT&T Unlimited Elite plan is the top tier option. There's no official launch date yet beyond "coming soon," but we know it's going to cost $85 for a single line or $50 if buying four lines. The higher price gets you 1080p video, 100GB of unthrottled data, and 30GB of mobile hotspot data per month.

It's important to note that these new unlimited plans do not include access to the WatchTV service as the existing unlimited plans do. Instead, only the Elite plan will offer access to HBO and HBO Max when it launches. The pricing above doesn't include taxes and fees, and assumes you've opted for autopay and paperless billing.

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