What has already been a hazy and confusing landscape for the long-awaited rollout of the US 5G network doesn’t seem to be clearing up any time soon. AT&T and Verizon offered dueling press releases yesterday, each touting their own networks as being on the leading edge of the highly anticipated mobile internet service.
AT&T announced that its 5G service was available in parts of seven more cities Tuesday (Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose), bringing its total to 19 and claiming to be the exclusive provider of 5G in those areas. It first went live in 12 cities back in December (Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Waco). In February it added Chicago and Minneapolis to its list of targeted cities for 2019, but it’s unclear when 5G service in those two cities will be launched. AT&T refers to “early adopters” having access to its standards-based 5G network in parts of the 19 cities, but they are only able to do so by connecting to select mobile hotspots using their existing equipment. There are currently no commercially available mobile devices with direct AT&T 5G connectivity.
To add to the confusion, AT&T has been offering a “5G Evolution” network – which appears on its devices as “5G e” – since last year. The 5G Evolution service is essentially a re-branding (and re-labeling) of its current 4G LTE network, with some apparent speed improvements, and appears on devices where the actual 5G network is not available. AT&T was highly criticized for this move, which was what many see as a clear marketing ploy. AT&T received even more criticism last week when it was revealed that its claims of increased speed on 5G Evolution were significantly skewed by the release of a new iPhone operating system, which accounted for a large share of the speed gains.
Meanwhile, Verizon announced that it launched its standards-based 5G network a couple of days early (it was originally scheduled for April 11) in select parts of Chicago and Minneapolis on Monday. It plans to add 30 more cities to its 5G network later this year. Unlike AT&T’s current 5G hotspot offerings, Verizon boasts the first 5G network with direct connectivity to consumer devices. Again, however, consumer impact is limited, as the only device capable of taking advantage of the service is a Motorola Z3 phone with a special Verizon 5G mod attachment – a separate purchase. Additionally, early tests of Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago have proven to be fast but spotty, frequently reverting to 4G LTE in dead zones.
As with much of the hype surrounding 5G, these press releases represent significant P.R. milestones for the carrier companies but have meant little for most consumers so far. AT&T is operating 5G in the most cities, but currently only through hotspots and only then in limited parts of those cities. Verizon has the first 5G network device connectivity, but only in two cities, with limited coverage, and on a single phone model requiring a mod attachment. So, despite carriers’ claims of victory in the race for 5G, the service will not quite be ready in any practical way for most non-commercial users until coverage expands and compatible devices start becoming available.