AT&T to Switch On 5G in 12 Cities

AT&T plans to activate its 5G network in parts of 12 U.S. cities, the company announced Tuesday.

Under the plan, a select group of users will receive a 5G hot spot that connects to AT&T’s 5G+ network, with service starting this Friday.

The hardware and data access will be free for 90 days. When the system becomes more widely available next spring, customers can buy the Netgear Nighthawk mobile hotspot for US$499, and sign up for a 15-GB data plan for $70 a month.

AT&T’s 5G service will roll out in parts of Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Raleigh, North Carolina; and San Antonio and Waco, Texas.

In the first half of next year, the company plans to deliver 5G service to parts of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California.

Verizon launched a fixed 5G home service in October, limited geographically to select neighborhoods in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. Pricing is $50 a month for existing Verizon customers and $70 a month for others. The launch is a bit controversial, because Verizon’s 5G offering doesn’t use standard industry technology.

Race Has Begun

“Every race begins with a starting gun. This is the starting gun for the 5G race,” said Jeff Kagan, a wireless and telecom industry analyst.

Although AT&T is the first to enter the market with a mobile 5G device, Kagan doesn’t believe the company has an edge on its competitors yet.

“It’s not going to give AT&T an advantage, but it does give it bragging rights,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“The rubber is really going to meet the road when the carriers begin offering a retail experience, and customers can buy off-the-shelf 5G services,” said Jason Leigh, a senior research analyst for mobility with Framingham, Massachusetts-based IDC, a market research company.

“What this does do is allow AT&T to test their network in a more real world setting,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“It’s going to give them better insight into how it’s going to perform, so they can better manage expectations in terms of data speeds and latency when they do go retail,” Leigh explained. “It also gives them a way to gauge the appetite for 5G for both the enterprise and consumer.”

Chicken-and-Egg Situation

This is a true 5G, standards-compliant offering, noted Emanuel Kolta, a research analyst in the London office of ABI Research, a technology advisory company.

The signal from the hotspot to whatever is connected to it is WiFi, but at this stage of the game, that can be a good thing.

“This will ease the transition to 5G handsets as the units become available,” Kolta told the E-Commerce Times.

Those handsets, some with foldable screens, are expected to start appearing in the market next year.

“A foldable screen would bring a much bigger tablet-sized display, potentially in a clamshell form, and these new 5G-capable devices will improve the customer experience and boost data traffic,” Kolta said.

We’re in a classic chicken-and-egg situation now, observed Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research, a technology market research and consulting firm in Foster City, California.

“You have to put the network up before you can have devices that connect to it,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “We have a device that will connect now, but things will get much more interesting when you start actually getting 5G phones.”

Better Artificial Reality

A major selling point to consumers for 5G will be speed. That could be a very persuasive selling point for mobile gamers.

“In streaming gaming, if you hit a button and a couple of milliseconds go by, that’s going to make the difference between a good gaming experience and an unsatisfactory one,” noted Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, a consumer technology advisory firm.

“Speed is also important for other media that are expected to be featured heavily in a 5G world, such as virtual reality and augmented reality,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“In order for those media to produce a convincing effect, they have to move with very little delay,” Rubin explained.

A big complaint with virtual reality headsets is that when you turn your head, there’s a slight lag as a scene adjusts to the motion. Over time, it can make some people nauseous.

“5G is going to essentially eliminate that lag and make everything almost instantaneous,” IDC’s Leigh said.

Initially, though, 5G may be a tough sell to many consumers, suggested Bill Menezes, a senior principal analyst at Gartner, a research and advisory company based in Stamford, Connecticut.

“Right now, 5G offers consumers the opportunity to pay a lot of money for a service that in its initial iterations is no better than high-end cable modem or fiber to the home service,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

If They Come, We Will Build It

Confusion over what 5G actually is may leave some consumers cool to the technology.

“The reality is, all the carriers’ terminology is confusing,” Technalysis’ O’Donnell said.

“Competing carriers will look for every nook and cranny to confuse the marketplace,” remarked Kagan.

The carriers have a “flexible definition” of what they’re calling 5G, noted Gartner’s Menezes.

“The 3GPP standard defines what 5G is but service providers are likely to deploy an ecosystem of different network technologies under the 5G label, just as they did with LTE,” he explained.

“5G has the potential to open up new areas of business growth, but given the service providers generally still indicate they have no idea of what specific 5G-enabled services will take off in either the business or consumer markets, it’s hard to tell what the actual impact will be,” Menezes added.

Whatever the impact may be, it’s still a few years away. Broad commercial availability of 5G in the U.S. is not expected until about 2023, based on Gartner’s estimates.

“The carriers have made it clear they’re deploying based on demand and on how readily they can identify profitable use cases,” Menezes said. “It won’t be a ‘build it and they will come’ build-out like 4G LTE.”

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reportersince 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and GovernmentSecurity News. Email John.

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