AT&T has had, generously speaking, a mixed year when it comes to 5G. It kicked off 2019 by doubling down on its , which misled consumers into thinking they had 5G, when they really were tapping into an advanced form of 4G that every other carrier already offered. After touting the launch of the world's first 5G network in December, it still hasn't made it available to anyone aside from select, friendly business customers. Even as Samsung launches its second 5G phone in the , AT&T has yet to launch its consumer service.
But, as odd as it sounds, AT&T may have been right all along.
5G is live, but it's hardly lived up to expectations. CNET's, spanning everywhere from Seoul to London and many cities in between, have but . All new network deployments have their fair share of growing pains, but this generation's rollout has been far more problematic.
But to the carriers, that doesn't matter. If the last few years have been all about building up hype for when 5G becomes reality, 2019 has been about sustaining that hype until 5G becomes something ready for mainstream consumers. It's been about a series of first: AT&T and Korean telecom player KT jockeying to be the first to launch a 5G; Verizon launching the first 5G network available to US consumers; Motorola launching the first 5G device through a Moto Mod attachment; Samsung launching the first 5G smartphone; or EE launching the first UK network.
Ultimately, this is more about bragging rights and the ability to tout network superiority over their competitors, and less about whether. As CNET senior reporter Shara Tibken explains, , because the early technical limitations mean the first-generation devices aren't actually a way to future-proof yourself when better coverage rolls out.
While AT&T is hardly blameless here, withholding 5G service from consumers is at least an honest admission that its 5G experience isn't ready.
"We're not distracted by the 5G popularity contest," an AT&T spokesman said. "Our focus is on our customers."
Likewise T-Mobile, which has launched its millimeter wave network in a limited fashion, hasn't talked about the service much and isn't going to go big until it can roll out broader coverage.
"You can't go to a US consumer and charge them a big premium and it works on three street corners," T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in an interview in March.
Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G confusion
A look at the different versions of the upcoming Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G spurs a minor headache. Verizon Wireless is the exclusive US launch partner for the device, but the phone can tap only into the super-fast but super-limited network that the carrier has built using a high frequency form of radio signals called millimeter wave spectrum. If you happen to be in the right intersection or sports arena in one of nine cities, you'll get some of the highest speeds available.
Walk a block or two away, and you're out of luck.
Things get confusing when you look at the different version that AT&T and T-Mobile get. Their Note 10 Plus 5G uses a more advanced modem by Qualcomm that can tap into multiple bands. But these early versions are hobbled and can only access their lower frequency spectrum – which offer great coverage, but much lower speeds – and not the super-fast millimeter-wave spectrum they've already launched in various cities.
It's unclear which version Sprint will get, but it's likely able to tap into its five-city 5G network, powered by what's known as mid-band 2.5 gigahertz spectrum, which offers a decent compromise between speed and range. Because of the properties of that spectrum, it has the broadest coverage of any of the carriers from a per-square-mileage perspective.
"Sprint has been transparent about its 5G network publishing coverage maps and (population coverage), along with setting expectations about the real-world average speeds customers should expect," said a Sprint spokeswoman.
Then there's the of T-Mobile potentially buying Sprint. Depending on which version of the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G Sprint gets, there may be issues with tapping into all of the different bands.
Yes, it's hard to keep track of – even if you follow this stuff for a living. The bottom line is that it's a fallacy to think that you're future-proofing yourself with any of these early 5G phones.
Samsung, for its part, says that it ensures that the value proposition of the phone itself justifies the purchase.
It gets better
The good news is 2020 brings a lot more simplicity to the 5G world. That new modem that Qualcomm is rolling out,. And better yet, it'll be able to fulfill its potential of being able to tap into every band. It'll eventually get integrated into a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which will allow for smaller and more power-efficient phones.
More importantly, carriers are shooting for the coverage to be much better.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told CNBC that hisand that half of consumers will be using a 5G phone by 2024. Verizon hasn't said specified how it would get that broader coverage, only saying it would use different bands of spectrum for better reach.
AT&T and T-Mobile both expect to officially launch its 5G service later this year, but both are promising nationwide coverage by next year.
T-Mobile's Ray hinted that the company's next "Un-Carrier" event would center on 5G, but it's dependent on getting that version of the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G that can tap into the broader network. It won't loudly promote its service until that happens.
"T-Mobile has long held a radically different vision for 5G in America: that it should work everywhere and cost the same as LTE does today," Ray said on Thursday.
It's not that radical. For once, AT&T agrees.
"We believe from a consumer perspective, you have to get to mass coverage," Gordon Mansfield, vice president of converged access and device technology for AT&T, said in an interview last month.
Now if AT&T could just get rid of that stupid 5G E logo.
CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.
The story published at 5 a.m. PT.