AT&T to launch 5G for consumers using low-band 850 MHz spectrum

AT&T is finally opening up 5G service to consumers, announcing Thursday the first cities for its upcoming 5G launch using low-band spectrum, as well as preorders for a new version of the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G.

AT&T is using 850 MHz spectrum for its low-band 5G rollout, according to an AT&T spokesperson, which the carrier says has a reach of about 2 miles from cell sites, and will cover “tens of millions” of consumers and businesses this year. AT&T plans to deliver nationwide sub-6 GHz 5G coverage in the first half of 2020.

AT&T’s 5G service will roll out in coming weeks in parts of the following markets: Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Providence, Rhode Island; Rochester, New York; and San Diego. 

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The carrier also plans to launch 5G service using low-band spectrum in Boston; Las Vegas; Milwaukee; New York City; San Francisco; Birmingham, Alabama; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Louisville; and San Jose, among others.  

AT&T also released coverage maps (PDF)– depicting where sub-6 GHz 5G service can be expected by February 2020. Verizon earlier this week released its own coverage maps, showing locations where its 5G service using mmWave spectrum is available.

For the first time, AT&T consumers will be able to access 5G service, available on the carrier’s recently launched AT&T Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite wireless plans, at no additional cost. The Elite plan touts a healthy 100 GB data cap before speeds are slowed during times of network congestion. Business customers can also get AT&T’s low-band 5G at launch.

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However, AT&T is still only offering its 5G+ service, which launched late last year, and uses high-band millimeter wave spectrum, to business customers.

AT&T is differentiating between the two flavors of 5G - positioning low-band 5G for use in residential, suburban and rural areas, while what it dubs 5G+ over mmWave spectrum is aimed at dense, high-trafficked areas like stadiums and arena, shopping centers, and university campuses.

Although carriers started initial 5G rollouts with mmWave spectrum that can deliver gigabit speeds and massive capacity, the transmission range is limited and service has not extended outside of small pockets of dense urban areas. While AT&T said its low-band 5G can reach about 2 miles, 5G+ in comparison, has a range of about 1,000 feet – though distances vary.

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"When we introduced the U.S. to 5G last year, we started with a business-first and experience-based strategy to lay the foundation for innovation to come," said Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO, AT&T Consumer, in a statement. "We're now introducing consumers to the future of wireless with broad 5G service included in our best unlimited plans for 5G devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G."

Preorders for the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G start Nov. 25, but while the device supports 5G in sub-6 GHz bands, it won’t be able to tap AT&T’s service over mmWave. Samsung has a version of the Galaxy Note 10+ that supports mmWave spectrum bands, but currently there aren’t any 5G devices in the U.S. that work with both low- and high-band spectrum for 5G.

Like AT&T, T-Mobile is focused on a low-band 5G rollout this year, meant to provide broader coverage, alongside performance boosts. T-Mobile is slated to launch 5G using 600 MHz spectrum on Dec. 6, pledging to cover 200 million people.

Sprint so far is the only carrier that’s launched 5G with mid-band spectrum, providing greater coverage in select cities using it’s 2.5 GHz holdings, which T-Mobile is hoping to get its hands on through the pair’s pending merger.