AT&T expands 5G to legacy unlimited plans

In another move to reward existing customers, AT&T is adding 5G and 5G+ to legacy unlimited plans, regardless of which unlimited version the customer is using, at no added cost. 5G+ is the version of its 5G that uses millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum.

Starting this month, the operator will start adding AT&T 5G and 5G+ access to previous generation consumer unlimited plans, of which it lists nine different versions. In April, it will start adding 5G and 5G+ to AT&T Business unlimited plans.

Customers who are on AT&T’s current unlimited plans, which include Starter, Extra and Elite plans, already have 5G access included. Those who are on the Unlimited Elite plan get HBO Max included. Business customers on the newer plans already get 5G access as well.

Of course, they all need a 5G capable device to get access, and AT&T stipulates that it may temporarily slow data speeds if the network is busy.

The move falls in line with AT&T’s strategy of treating existing customers similarly to new ones. Last year, AT&T started offering the same type of smartphone deals, usually reserved for enticing new customers, to its existing base. The tactic appears to be working; AT&T reported Q4 2020 postpaid churn of 0.76%, its second-lowest quarter ever.

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The 5G announcement comes after AT&T on Friday laid out its 2021 5G strategy, which includes 80 MHz of spectrum it acquired in the record-setting C-band auction. Of that, 40 MHz is expected to be made available by the end of this year. AT&T expects to spend a total of about $6 billion to $8 billion deploying its C-band spectrum, with most of that spending to occur in the 2022-2024 timeframe.

RELATED: AT&T to spend up to $8B on C-band deployment

AT&T also said it will be deploying mmWave spectrum in 17 venues across the country by the end of 2021, including stadiums, arenas and practice facilities, bringing its total mmWave venues to over 40. In addition, it’s lighting up more than 30 of its company-owned retail locations with 5G+ by the end of this year, as well as launching 5G+ at another seven airports.

AT&T’s 5G+ focus on venues is similar to Verizon’s in that they’re targeting high-traffic areas for the deployment of mmWave, which doesn’t travel far but provides super-fast speeds. Both picked up significant C-band mid-band spectrum in the auction that ended in February, although Verizon was the bigger spender, paying more than $45 billion in pre-clearing costs. AT&T spent about $23.4 billion.

In contrast, T-Mobile pledged a mere $9.3 billion in that auction; it’s busy deploying the 2.5 GHz treasure trove it obtained through the $26 billion Sprint transaction as its mid-band 5G play. T-Mobile has an 18-month or more advantage over its rivals in the mid-band department, as only a portion of the C-band will be cleared and ready for 5G deployment by the end of this year.

Analysts at New Street Research noted in a report Monday that they’re referring to 5G deployed on 2.5 GHz and above as “fast 5G,” where networks typically deliver 300-400 Mbps, which is about 10x the speeds usually seen on 4G networks. 5G that’s deployed below 2.5 GHz is considered “standard 5G,” in their eyes, as these networks typically see speeds of 30-60 Mbps, similar to or slightly better than 4G, but not materially better. “We believe fast 5G will drive competitive differentiation, while standard 5G will not,” wrote New Street’s Jonathan Chaplin.