All the big US carriers want to be the first to sell you 5G cellular service. AT&T is so anxious to do so, it’s currently pushing a “5G Evolution” in some markets that isn’t real 5G, but an enhanced version of 4G. That said, the carrier has announced it does have plans for standards-based 5G as well. On the heels of the first official 5G standard, AT&T says it has plans to launch the faster wireless service by late 2018. These won’t be fixed location services, either. We’re talking true mobile 5G service for consumers to use on a phone.
It was just late last month that the 3GPP (the organization that oversees cellular standards) released details on 5G NR. That’s the first official 5G wireless standard, supporting a raft of new radio technologies. The spec includes support for low-frequency bands in the 600-800MHz range that pass through walls efficiently, midrange frequencies up to 3.5GHz, and high-frequency bands in the 50GHz range for higher bandwidth. AT&T’s wireless licenses are well-supported by the standard, so it’s moving full speed ahead with deployment.
According to the oh-so-enthusiastic press release, AT&T promises mobile 5G service for consumers in 12 markets by the end of this year. It didn’t go into details regarding which markets it plans to roll out, but they’ll probably all be mid-sized cities without too many coverage challenges. True 5G wireless service will have much higher data speeds, but latency and network availability should also be much improved over 4G LTE.
AT&T says it will continue using the 5G Evolution branding for its enhanced 4G network going forward as well. 5G Evolution is not based on 5G standards, but is instead LTE with a few updated network technologies like carrier aggregation for higher bandwidth. It’s a repeat of the 4G transition, where T-Mobile and AT&T both rolled out faster 3G HSPA+ service and just called it 4G. AT&T has not offered any details on fixed 5G service that could replace home internet, but it has been running a trial of pre-standard 5G home service in a few markets.
Getting carrier support for 5G in place is only the first step. It’s unlikely there will be many devices with the necessary 5G radios ready to take advantage of the service in 2018. The first ones will probably be mobile hotspots and bespoke devices created to AT&T’s specifications. If you want a 5G iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, you’ll probably be waiting another year or so.
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