AT&T's 5G network is live, if you're in the right city

It'll cost $70 a month to use with a mobile hotspot. 5G phones arrive in 2019.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch

AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch speaks of the company's 5G plans in September.

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If you live in one of a dozen US cities, you can tap into AT&T's 5G network this week.

The carrier, locked in a race with Verizon and other network operators to move to the next-gen wireless technology as fast as possible, is turning on its network on Tuesday. But until 5G phones arrive in the first half of 2019, it'll only be useful with Netgear's Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, a portable device that creates its own Wi-Fi network so you can link phones, laptops and tablets to the 5G network.

AT&T's 5G network will work in parts of Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; and Waco, Texas. AT&T wouldn't comment in detail about how broadly 5G will work in those cities, but said it would arrive in "dense urban and high-traffic areas."

So how much will it cost you to try tomorrow's technology today? For the first 90 days, AT&T says it'll be free for "select" customers. After that, the company will charge $499 for the hotspot plus $70 per month for a plan with a 15GB data cap.

Watch this: What the heck is a 5G network?

The 5G frenzy is in full force as the tech industry tries to cash in on a technology that, while hyped to white-hot levels, really does offer a lot of eventual benefits. 5G networks are geared to increase download and upload speeds, stand up better in crowded areas, enable low-latency uses like fast-twitch multiplayer gaming, and eventually connect all kinds of internet-of-things devices to the network that aren't practical or economical today.

"This is the first taste of the mobile 5G era," Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer and president of AT&T Labs, said in a statement. In 2019, AT&T expects 5G to reach multi-gigabit speeds -- a big notch up from the 1 gigabit per second that modern 4G can almost reach under optimal circumstances.

Slow transition

But for now, it's just baby steps. AT&T and Verizon each pledged to launch 5G in 2018, and each made its deadline, sort of. AT&T had a couple weeks to spare and addressed a limited number of people with a useful but not mainstream product. Verizon launched its 5G service first, but not with the actual 5G industry standard itself and serving only customers with wireless home broadband.

It's not easy to move to a new network. Upgrading thousands of cell towers -- and installing new ones to deal with 5G's higher-speed but shorter-range millimeter-wave technology -- takes years. Add to that the fact that everybody has to buy new phones, like the ones we expect to see debut from Samsung and others at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona this February.

"It's not like an overnight switch off of 4G," said Rudolf van der Berg, a consultant at Dutch telecom consulting firm Stratix. "There are hundreds of millions of 4G-capable phones, and replacement cycles are growing longer."

So even if you live in a city covered by 5G, you could be more excited about watching a few really data-hungry early adopters upgrade to 5G and leave you with a bit more room on the boring old 4G network. And even though 5G is coming, carriers continue to upgrade 4G networks, too.

If you're interested in 5G, though, expect to pay. "5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing. We expect pricing to be at a premium to what we charge today," AT&T said.

AT&T throws shade at Verizon

Verizon may have beaten AT&T to the punch by launching its home broadband service with 5G technology in October, but AT&T took a dig at Verizon for using some tech elements but not the 5G standard itself that many companies collaboratively produced somewhat later.

AT&T bragged it's the "first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network." It didn't call Verizon out by name, but it's not hard to connect the dots.

Verizon shrugged off the criticism, boasting of its own work helping establish and accelerate the 5G standard and of its milestones with 5G's new radio communication standard. "We've consistently been first to 5G, and we'll continue to lead the industry in 2019," spokesman Kevin King said.

AT&T has brought 5G coverage to 12 US cities (blue) in the south and midwest in 2018 and will expand the network to seven generally more populous ones (red) in 2019, the year 5G phones will arrive.

AT&T has brought 5G coverage to 12 US cities (blue) in the south and midwest in 2018 and will expand the network to seven generally more populous ones (red) in 2019, the year 5G phones will arrive.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

AT&T 5G coming to more cities in 2019

in 2019, AT&T plans a fuller 5G network. In the first half of the year, it'll reach parts of  Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California, the company said.

The scramble is leaving things chaotic, and even for "standard" 5G, you shouldn't expect the maturity of today's 4G, said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart.

"None of the first 5G devices will work across different carrier 5G networks," Greengart said. "Even if you go to your carrier, buy a 5G phone for their network, and the 5G network is being deployed in your area, you still might not actually get 5G until it gets installed on your block. Given the challenges, I just don't expect network coverage saturation in 2019."

So people will sit out the initial 5G churn -- especially if they have iPhones that reportedly won't get 5G support until 2020. "If you're an iPhone user," Greengart said, "you can probably ignore 5G's growing pains for at least a year."

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