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AT&T CEO says the first 5G devices will be 'pucks'

AT&T says the biggest bottleneck in the spread of next-generation wireless tech is the lack of 5G smartphones.

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5G is more than just speed, even if it'll be faster than your home broadband connection.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Don't expect to make a phone call on the first 5G devices. 

AT&T has set a goal of launching its super-fast next-generation cellular network in a dozen markets by the end of the year. But the first 5G devices won't be phones, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said on a conference call on Wednesday, telling investors they should instead expect "pucks" that work like mobile hotspots. 

That makes a lot of sense, since phone makers and component manufacturers are still working to get everything aligned for 5G phones. The chip makers say the first 5G-compatible radio small enough for a phone won't likely appear until early next year, which is why some scratched their heads about AT&T's push to get 5G out this year. 

5G pucks, which would work like portable modems, could offer a taste of the network's amped-up speeds. 

Talk of 5G is at a fevered pitch because it's supposed to transform our world with faster and more reliable wireless coverage. 5G is seen as the technology that will serve as the foundation for other trends, such as self-driving cars and streaming virtual reality and augmented reality experiences. 

It's also getting closer to becoming a reality. 

There's a race and a war of words between carriers over who can get to 5G first. Verizon is investing in 5G as a broadband replacement service and plans to launch commercial service this year, as well. AT&T touts its 5G as the first mobile version of the technology, while T-Mobile has committed to building a nationwide network by 2020, and accused both AT&T and Verizon of overhyping the technology. 

Stephenson noted the low availability of handsets will be the biggest hurdle early on. The situation is similar to the debut of LTE networks, which first saw laptop modems before smartphones took advantage of the faster network. 

Beyond the mobile network, Stephenson said the prospect of building a nationwide broadband network running on 5G is what excites him the most. He said he could see 5G replacing traditional fixed line internet connections in the future.

"I get very energized about the opportunity in the next few years to build out a nationwide broadband network," he said.