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AT&T's next 5G network is going live in December, but don't expect big jumps in speed

Consumers will finally be able to use AT&T's 5G network, but the initial service won't be much better than what you get with 4G.

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G will be AT&T's first 5G phone for consumers. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

After turning on a millimeter-wave 5G network for developers and business users over the past year, AT&T is just about ready for regular consumers to begin using out its next-generation wireless service. But don't expect any big speed jumps or a large nationwide network at launch. 

Starting on Monday, the carrier will begin taking preorders for Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, the first phone capable of tapping into AT&T's low-band 5G offering. The $1,300 phone will ship in the "first half of December," Kevin Petersen, senior vice president of AT&T Mobility told CNET. 

When it comes to 5G, however, the phone will only work on AT&T's low-band 5G that launches around the same time. The phone won't be able to use the millimeter-wave network AT&T turned on in parts of 21 cities, a service the company calls "5G Plus."

Devices that tap into both millimeter-wave and low-band 5G are expected to be available next year. 

ReadWhen will cheap 5G come to the masses?

Those who want 5G will also need to be on one of AT&T's latest, priciest unlimited plans, which are called Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite. Prices start at $75 per month for a single line of Extra and $85 on Elite. Older unlimited or shared data plans won't be able to tap into 5G. 

As for the new network, it will go live starting in five cities: Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Providence, Rhode Island; Rochester, New York and San Diego. 

A second wave will include 10 cities: Boston; Las Vegas; Milwaukee; New York; San Francisco; Birmingham, Alabama; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Louisville, Kentucky and San Jose, California. 

AT&T says this second rollout will "quickly follow" the initial launch but the company didn't provide details on if this will occur in 2019 or 2020. 

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A first step, but not a big jump 

Unlike T-Mobile, which plans to launch its low-band 5G network on Dec. 6 and will cover 200 million people, AT&T's initial network will be smaller and cover "tens of millions" of people. 

Similar to T-Mobile's new network, however, AT&T's new low-band service will work indoors with a breadth of coverage similar to what is currently found with its existing 4G LTE network that it rebranded earlier this year as "5GE." The company is putting out maps for its new 5G markets, which Petersen says is "ever-evolving coverage" as the company takes it nationwide.  

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AT&T's 5G coverage for Providence, R.I. 

AT&T

AT&T plans to have this 5G network across the country in the first half of 2020. If you see 5GE on your AT&T phone today then you are in an area that should have real 5G at some point. 

Those expecting an initial jump in speeds or latency, however, will be disappointed. Petersen says service on the 5G launch networks will be "on par" with what AT&T 4G LTE users get on its 5GE network. The launch networks won't see the impressive speeds the company offers on its millimeter-wave "5G Plus" network

So, why should people want to upgrade this holiday? "I think about it as the first step into the future," Petersen said. "It's something that will evolve." Petersen said customers who upgrade will be "on the cutting edge" and experience apps that developers are designing to take advantage of the network's capabilities. 

Analysts say the launch will be a boon for developers, even if consumers might not see big bumps in services. 

"The 5G low-band launch is exciting for developers because they can now start developing new applications that will start taking advantage of the new features that 5G will offer down the line," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "In the meantime, the consumer impact of a low-band 5G launch will be limited."

But, Entner says, "you have to start somewhere."