AT&T Joins the Nationwide Low-Band 5G Coverage Race

eWEEK NETWORKING ANALYSIS: As is the case with other carriers, AT&T’s 5G is still a work in progress with a patchwork of 5G technologies connected by 4G LTE

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AT&T has announced that its 5G network is now available nationwide. AT&T is now the second U.S. wireless carrier to achieve nationwide coverage, following T-Mobile, which accomplished that on Dec. 2, 2019. Like T-Mobile, AT&T is deploying its low-band technology that uses 850 MHz to reach larger portions of the U.S. that the company can currently reach using its millimeter-wave technology.

The use of this lower band allows signals to travel much farther, which in turn requires far fewer cell sites than would be the case otherwise.

As you’d expect, AT&T is still growing its network, and while it’s available nationwide, it’s not available everywhere. “Low band gets us to nationwide,” Igal Elbaz, senior VP of wireless technology at AT&T, told eWEEK, “but it’s only the beginning of the journey.”

5G is sparse at first, but will grow into a complete network

A look at the 5G coverage maps for AT&T versus T-Mobile shows the difference that eight months of expansion gets you. Right now, AT&T’s nationwide coverage is sparse by comparison. However, it’s important to note that the way the companies use their coverage is quite different. In addition to its 850 MHz 5G coverage, AT&T also has 39 GHz millimeter-wave 5G in 35 cities.

The millimeter-wave 5G is concentrated in dense urban areas, according to Elbaz, and in places such as hospitals, manufacturing areas and stadiums. T-Mobile’s expansion has very limited millimeter wave usage and instead concentrates on mid-band service using Sprint’s former 2.5 GHz infrastructure.

AT&T’s millimeter-wave service will provide those blindingly fast 5G connections that the 5G hype describes along with extremely low latency. Elbaz said that to make its 5G work effectively for users, the company is backing up it up with improved network architecture that includes a focus on cloud access and software-defined networking. The combination of these technologies into a three-tier approach means that AT&T has the network needed to support widespread 5G deployment.

Verizon using different approach

Verizon Wireless, by contrast, only has 5G deployed as millimeter-wave technology, and only in 35 cities. In those cities, the coverage is very limited, often focused on individual street corners or buildings. Nationwide coverage doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Verizon any time soon unless that company deploys something beyond its millimeter- wave sites.

AT&T is adding 5G to its consumer postpaid and prepaid plans starting on Aug. 7, 2020. Business customers have had access to the 5G network for some time, but mostly to the millimeter-wave version. The company is offering several phones from Samsung and LG. Two of the Samsung phones will support 5G in both the 850 MHz and millimeter wave bands.

Elbaz said that the development of 5G and the network improvements are intended to allow development of resources on the edge of the network. He said that this will allow greater support for IoT devices as well as for applications such as driverless cars and augmented reality.

Wayne Rash, a former executive editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...