Industry Voices—Lowenstein: AT&T 5G launch is a large commercial test

Mark Lowenstein Industry Voices

Congratulations are in order for AT&T, which launched mobile 5G services Tuesday in parts of 12 cities. This is the first commercial 5G mobile service available in the United States based on the 3GPP Release 15 standard, which dropped in June 2018.

The 5G+ service, as AT&T calls its 39 GHz mmWave-based 5G service, launches with a $499 NETGEAR Nighthawk Hotspot, and a monthly service plan of $70 for 15 GB.

AT&T did not say anything in its release on data speeds, although the theoretical peak of the Nighthawk is 979 Mbps. So yes, as the number of business days remaining in 2018 wanes, AT&T did fulfill on its promise to go live by the end of the year. And we are live with 5G in the U.S. and in a few other parts of the world sooner than many of us would have predicted only a couple of years ago. So it’s exciting.

At this early stage, we should see this as mainly a large commercial market test. It’s a bit ironic that given all the hype around 5G, this launch came rather quietly. A press release, some coverage in the tech trades. But no full page ads in The Wall Street Journal or commercials on primetime TV. No big press or analyst event (at least that we were invited to!). AT&T is not disclosing much with respect to initial 5G coverage or performance. It says the service is available in “parts of 12 cities.” AT&T is only making the service available to “select businesses and consumers,” which to me means a hand-picked group of customers in proximity to the relatively modest number of cell sites that are lit with 5G at launch. And they’re giving away the hotspot and service for free, for three months.

As an aside, the service pricing is a bit curious. At $70 for 15 GB, that’s a premium price compared to most LTE data plans. I get the “premium price for premium service” idea, and I think it’s important to designate it as such. But the modest usage limit defies what is meant to be one of the main selling points of 5G—significantly greater capacity, especially using the wide, and presently empty mmWave channels.

This all indicates that AT&T’s service is very much still in “test mode,” which is to be expected considering how recently the standard was published and network equipment became available, plus the fact that there’s only one commercially available mobile 5G device at this point. My measure of true commercial availability is when an average customer today can walk into a store in downtown Dallas or Houston, buy a device and sign up for service. And I wouldn’t recommend any customer buy 5G+ until there was more information available about coverage. If, for example, AT&T says 5G+ is available in the heart of downtown Dallas, for example, I’d expect to see that 5G+ light to be on in a critical mass (25%+) of the downtown core.

Some are making the analogy to AT&T’s marketing its HSPA+ service as “4G” prior to its launch of LTE. In reality, AT&T’s HSPA+ services were faster than LTE in some of the initial LTE launch markets, especially the Metro PCS (which boasted the first U.S. LTE launch in 2010) cities, where LTE only had a 5 MHz channel. The same might even be true in the early 5G days, where I can see AT&T’s 5G Evolution, in a good spot and with all cylinders firing, performing comparably to 5G+. This demonstrates the marketing soup that we’ll be living with for the next couple of years, especially when you’re pitting “Gigabit LTE” up against 5G+ with a theoretical max of…about 1 Gbps.

Let’s admit that at this early stage, it’s a bit about marketing and bragging rights. Verizon claimed “first 5G” with its 5G TF fixed wireless access launch in four cities in October. AT&T will claim the first standards-based, “mobile 5G” service in the U.S. And T-Mobile will probably claim the first “wide area coverage” 5G (or something along those lines) when it launches its 600 MHz-based 5G service in 2019.

Outside the marketing game, however, is that this is one of the first real-world tests of a standards-based mobile 5G service using mmWave spectrum. It will be really interesting to see how 5G+ performs in wet, muggy, foliated New Orleans compared to dry and desert-y Las Vegas. Or whether there is 5G handoff from cell to cell, especially if moving faster than pedestrian speeds. Or how effectively the mmWave and lower band LTE spectrum interwork.

The true mobile 5G launches will be in 2019. More important than number of cities will be reaching critical mass of coverage within a city, and having a selection of smartphones and other 5G devices. When we see real marketing and advertising behind 5G service, and 5G devices a consumer can walk into a store and buy, then 5G will have launched in earnest. And that will likely be toward the second half of 2019.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.