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AT&T's low-band 5G network is now available nationwide

The carrier is also adding 5G access to its cheapest unlimited plan.

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AT&T's low-band 5G network is now nationwide. 

Angela Lang/CNET

AT&T's 5G network crossed an important milestone Thursday, with the telecom giant announcing on its second-quarter earnings call that its low-band 5G network is now available to 205 million people.

By crossing the 200 million mark the company now meets the Federal Communication Commission's definition of a nationwide network. 

AT&T joins T-Mobile, which has had a nationwide 5G network since last December when it turned on its low-band 5G service, as the only two US carriers with nationwide 5G. T-Mobile's network currently covers over 225 million people, while rival Verizon plans to launch its own nationwide low-band 5G network later this year.  

In addition to expanding its 5G network, AT&T is also expanding its 5G access on Aug. 7 to include its Unlimited Starter plan. The carrier previously limited 5G only to those who paid for its two priciest unlimited plans, known as Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite. 

Those on Cricket, AT&T's prepaid brand, will be able to get 5G on Aug. 21, though they will need to have the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus 5G phone. 

To get to nationwide status, AT&T says that it has turned on its low-band network in 40 new markets, including Minneapolis, San Antonio, Houston and Jacksonville, Florida. The carrier now offers low-band 5G in 395 markets around the country. 

Low-band is one of three different flavors of 5G airwaves. While not much faster than a good 4G LTE connection (or what AT&T calls "5G E"), it has the best range of the bunch. AT&T's other 5G network uses what's known as millimeter-wave, a higher-frequency technology that has much faster speeds but significantly weaker range, and is largely only available on certain city blocks and can't work indoors. 

AT&T has deployed millimeter-wave 5G, what it calls 5G Plus, in 35 cities around the country. 

Igal Elbaz, AT&T's senior vice president of wireless technologies, tells CNET that the carrier is still expanding its millimeter-wave coverage, though the carrier hasn't announced any targets for the amount of millimeter-wave cities it hopes to cover this year. 

Rival Verizon has said it plans to expand its millimeter-wave 5G network to 60 cities this year. 

The third flavor is known as midband, which has the best mix of speeds and coverage. AT&T has largely been using these airwaves for its 4G LTE network, but it is beginning to share some of that network with its growing 5G service. The company, as well as Verizon, is expected to be an active bidder in an FCC auction for more midband spectrum that started on Thursday.

The 5G expansion arrives ahead of what is expected to be a busy smartphone season for 5G. Earlier this week the carrier announced it would be carrying the LG Velvet 5G and Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip 5G. Other notable smartphones rumored to feature 5G over the next few months are Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 and Apple's 2020 iPhone lineup.

Elbaz says that the "majority" of the carrier's upcoming 5G devices in 2020, as well as its 5G devices going forward, will support millimeter-wave 5G as well as its low-band and midband 5G networks. 

Read more5G phones in 2020: Galaxy S20, OnePlus Nord, LG Velvet, Motorola Edge Plus and more