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27 November 2019

AT&T and T-Mobile go head-to-head in 5G coverage race in sub-GHz bands

AT&T is extending its 5G network to consumers and into sub-6 GHz spectrum, after an initial period when it has been targeting enterprises with its millimeter wave network. This will shift its competitive landscape considerably. It will move from battling with Verizon for ‘early mover’ laurels, but with build-outs that have been limited in geography and use cases; to going head-to-head with T-Mobile USA, which has promised to use its dominant position in the 600 MHz band to achieve full coverage at low cost, and so be able to offer the most attractive consumer ‘Uncarrier’ propositions for 5G and video.

AT&T will use 850 MHz spectrum for its first low-band roll-out, and with a two-mile radius, base stations in these sub-GHz airwaves should enable it to reach “tens of millions” of customers this year. It is promising “national coverage” in the first half of 2020, a similar timeline to TMO.

Its first 850 MHz consumer markets will be Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Providence, Rhode Island; Rochester, New York; and San Diego, and its launch device will be the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G. Other cities on the near term roadmap include Boston; Las Vegas; Milwaukee; New York City; San Francisco; Birmingham, Alabama; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Louisville; and San Jose, among others.

Consumers will be able to subscribe to the new AT&T Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite wireless plans, at no additional cost. The Elite plan offers a 100GB data cap before speeds are throttled. However, the operator will still reserve the mmWave ‘5G Extra’ service only for businesses, which will limit the amount of difference consumers will see compared to 4G+, since there is limited capacity in the 850 MHz band.

AT&T is acknowledging this, saying it will not charge extra for low-band 5G because “data speeds on AT&T’s 5G network are initially expected to be comparable to 5G Evolution [the operator’s name for 4G+] speeds at the time of launch, while speeds on the 5G+ network are faster (but with very limited coverage)”, the operator told LightReading.

“When we introduced the US to 5G last year, we started with a business-first and experience-based strategy to lay the foundation for innovation to come,” said Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO of AT&T Consumer, in a statement. “We’re now introducing consumers to the future of wireless with broad 5G service included in our best unlimited plans for 5G devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G.”

Meanwhile, T-Mobile plans to launch sub-GHz 5G from December 6, promising to cover 200m people. Of course, TMO is relying on its merger with Sprint, if that is eventually approved, to bring it large stores of midband spectrum in 2.5 GHz – that would make it the only US MNO with significant numbers of midband airwaves, at least until the C-Band auction (see separate item), and that will enable it to achieve a strong balance between capacity and coverage, without having to rely too much on the challenging mmWave bands.

Verizon is the only US operator which is attempting to charge a premium for 5G. In August, it started charging an extra $10 a month for its mmWave 5G service on one plan, and said it would expand the fee to other plans in future. By contrast, TMO and Sprint are not charging extra, although 5G is only available on top end plans, while AT&T is offering it for no extra cost on mid-tier unlimited tariffs as well as high end (but not the entry level Unlimited Starter option).

Another potential challenge for consumers trying to work out the best 5G experience for them is that there will be no dual-band 5G phones, so users can purchase either an mmWave or a sub-GHz device, but not one that does both. The launch Galaxy Note model on AT&T’s 850 MHz band will not have an mmWave radio, for instance, though the operator says it is “working with device manufacturers to bring a dual-“.

At TMO, the same is true – its first 600 MHz 5G phones, the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G and the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, do not support the mmWave spectrum it is using in six cities. Likewise, its mmWave Samsung Galaxy S10 5G will not support 600 MHz. Qualcomm offers dual-band 5G modems but most of the initial handsets supporting the US launches are based on Samsung’s own modem.