The first official wireless 5G carrier network deployments aren't expected to go into wide use until 2020 across the United States, but for now AT&T is making 5G services available to a limited number of select business and consumer customers in parts of 12 U.S. cities using a special Netgear 5G hotspot device.
The 5G hotspot services are available in parts of Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Raleigh, N.C.; San Antonio; and Waco, Texas, using the company's commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network, according to a Dec. 18 announcement from AT&T. The initial launch is starting small and is limited at this point, but as the 5G ecosystem evolves customers will see enhancements in coverage, speeds and devices, the company said.
"This is the first taste of the mobile 5G era," Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO of the company, said in a statement. "Being first, you can expect us to evolve very quickly. It's early on the 5G journey, and we're ready to learn fast and continually iterate in the months ahead."
More such mobile 5G services will come in seven additional cities in the first half of 2019, including in Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego; San Francisco; and San Jose, Calif., the company announced.
AT&T's first 5G users will get the services through the use of the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot over AT&T's
mobile 5G+ network, which will help the company spread 5G services beyond densely populated urban areas that will get the first such capabilities.
The businesses and consumers who participate in AT&T's early adopter program will get a Netgear 5G mobile hotspot and service for at least 90 days at no charge under the program. Starting in the spring, customers will be able to buy a Nighthawk 5G hotspot for $499 upfront and get 15GB of data for $70 a month through it with no annual commitment.
Several IT analysts said they see the move by AT&T as the start of things to come.
"I'm not discounting the limitations—you need to live in one of these 12 cities and be on a block with a tower and there is only one hotspot available at launch—but this is full, standards-based mobile 5G on mmWave frequencies," Avi Greengart, a mobile analyst with GlobalData, told eWEEK. "It will take a while to overcome those limitations, but this is the start of a new wireless generation, and that's pretty exciting."
Bill Menezes of Gartner said this initial offering for 5G will help start laying out answers for the future of 5G services for business and consumers.
"Despite all of the early market hype, the AT&T launch is interesting because it gives us the first chance to compare 5G service offerings among carriers," he said. That will include providing answers about how pricing, service packages and availability in each announced market compare with what competitors will launch, while also laying out coverage maps, he added.
"We're still a couple of years away from 'real' 5G though. … Equipment like the AT&T hotspot or a 5G smartphone will need upgrades in a couple of years, when the user probably will be looking to replace them anyway, to meet the full 5G standard," said Menezes. "Speaking of which, nobody will be able to get 5G performance end to end given that these AT&T hotspots apparently will connect non-5G user devices via a WiFi signal."
Another analyst, Charles King of Pund-IT, said that since the 5G networks are still being built and there is still much to be done to get them fully operations, much of AT&T's network plan is largely self-promotional.
"In essence, the company is trumpeting the fact that it is the first to arrive at the starting line for a race that is months away from beginning," said King. "However, there is some practical value to the company's plans," such as its statement that users can expect to see AT&T evolve very quickly with its network.
"That is, as 5G's theoretical rubber meets real-world roads, AT&T will have more time and accumulate more experience than slower rivals," said King. "Finally, it's worth considering how companies that have announced plans to delay implementations—Apple is a good example—are being savaged by some analysts and 5G cheerleaders. By jumping in early, AT&T is ensuring that it will avoid such criticism."