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AT&T 5G network: Everything you need to know

Depending on who you ask, either Verizon or AT&T was the first provider in the country to offer a 5G phone plan. While Verizon was indeed the first to use technologies such as mmWave that are the basis for true 5G technologies, AT&T was the first to deploy something called 5GE, which was just souped-up LTE and more of a marketing ploy than anything else. AT&T has moved away from that (due to a lawsuit by Sprint) and is now focusing on true 5G, which is available across the country.

AT&T, always leaning toward confusion, splits its 5G coverage into two types — 5G, and 5G+. Standard 5G is essentially based on the Sub-6 spectrum, while 5G+ is AT&T’s mmWave network. For now, you shouldn’t worry too much about 5G+, as it’s not all that widely available, and where it is available, it’s a little finicky to actually use. That’s a problem every carrier faces.

Here’s everything you need to know about AT&T’s 5G rollout.

AT&T 5G network coverage

If you’re looking for an up-to-date map of coverage, take a look at our 5G coverage map to see if there’s availability in your area.

While AT&T was a little slow to the punch, it now offers a nationwide 5G network built on the Sub-6 spectrum. The result is that if you’re anywhere near a reasonably populated area, you should be able to get 5G service, though for now, that service may not be all that much faster than a 4G LTE connection.

It’s important to note that AT&T’s network isn’t as large as T-Mobile’s 5G network or Verizon 5G. Again, if you’re anywhere near a populated area, you should still get coverage, but outside of major cities, you may not. That’s likely to change over time — AT&T is rapidly expanding its 5G network, as all carriers are. Both its Sub-6 network and mmWave network should get a whole lot bigger over the coming year.

Many downtown areas across the country offer 5G+ connectivity, however, your success in actually connecting to those networks may vary.

Speaking of major cities, they’re the only place you’ll currently get AT&T’s 5G+ coverage. Many downtown areas across the country offer 5G+ connectivity, however, your success in actually connecting to those networks may vary. Just like Verizon and T-Mobile, AT&T has to battle with launching thousands of small cell sites in order to get mmWave coverage in even a small area, and many factors like buildings and even trees can cause problems with getting a consistent connection.

On AT&T’s Sub-6 network, you should be able to achieve download speeds of a few hundred megabits per second, but some people may still get slower speeds, closer to what you’ll see on 4G. Again, this will likely get better over time as AT&T improves its network. AT&T says most customers are getting download speeds of around 400Mbps on the parts of its 5G network that are already live. The company says it has observed speeds of up to 1.5Gbps — which is very impressive and lives up to what we expect to see from 5G eventually.

AT&T 5G coverage map

AT&T 5G carrier plans

AT&T offers a range of plans that work with 5G, and thankfully, you don’t have to pay extra to use 5G with AT&T on most of its plans — you just get it. AT&T offers three core plans, and they all offer unlimited data, with 5G access.

First up is the AT&T Unlimited Starter plan, with costs $65 per month for one line, or as little as $30 per line, per month for five lines. On this plan, you’ll get unlimited talk, text, and data, including in Canada and Mexico. Your video watching will be limited to standard definition — or 480p — so you won’t get ultra-clear video. For many people, that won’t really matter.

Next up is Unlimited Extra. This plan costs $75 per month for one line, or as little as $35 per line, per month for five lines. Added to this plan is 50GB of so-called “Premium Data,” which essentially means that you won’t be throttled in speeds if you’ve used less than 50GB. You’ll also get 15GB of 5G hot spot data per line.

Last but not least is Unlimited Elite. Unlimited Elite costs $85 per month for one line, and ranges down to $45 per month, per line for five lines. On this plan, you’ll get 100GB of premium data and the ability to stream video in HD, or 720p. You’ll also get 30GB of hot spot data, and a subscription to HBO Max.

Unfortunately, you won’t get 5G access on AT&T’s 4GB plan.

AT&T 5G phones

Image used with permission by copyright holder

AT&T offers a range of 5G-compatible phones, and actually, if you buy a reasonably new phone that costs more than $500 or so, you should expect to get 5G compatibility. In fact, we’re at a point now where if you’re buying a new phone that you expect to keep for more than a few years, you’ll probably want to make sure that it can connect to 5G networks. Here are some of the best AT&T 5G phones to buy in 2021:

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 – $800 ($26.67 per month)
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – $1,200 ($40 per month)
  • Apple iPhone 12 – $800 ($26.67 per month)
  • Apple iPhone 12 Pro – $1,000 ($33.34 per month)
  • Google Pixel 5 – $725 ($24.17 per month)

5G versus 5GE

AT&T 5GE phone
Image used with permission by copyright holder

As mentioned before, AT&T found itself in hot water over its decisions to rebrand certain 4G phones as “5GE” phones. The company argues that many technologies deeply linked to the faster 5G networks have already integrated into the company’s existing 4G network. That may be loosely true, but it is still disingenuous to brand top-level 4G as any sort of next-generation network.

Even other carriers are up in arms about 5GE. Sprint (prior to merging with T-Mobile) sued AT&T over the 5GE branding, arguing that it was misleading and that it does damage to other carriers because many consumers don’t know that 5GE isn’t “real” 5G.

The reality of it is that 5GE is actually 4G LTE Advanced. It is, unequivocally, not 5G. It may have better speeds than an older 4G network, but it’s still 4G. AT&T seems to be dramatically deemphasizing its use of 5GE now that its real 5G network has rolled out nationwide, and we’re happy to see it.

Christian de Looper
Christian’s interest in technology began as a child in Australia, when he stumbled upon a computer at a garage sale that he…
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