The telecommunications industry’s shift to 5G hit a major milestone today after AT&T Inc. announced that it has become the first U.S. carrier to launch a wireless service based on the technology.
Though already live, the service will only become available to consumers on Friday. It’s launching in 12 major cities around the country: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, and San Antonio and Waco, Texas.
As is usually the case with new technologies, there’s a caveat. Users will have to buy a $499 mobile hotspot from AT&T to access the service since current smartphones and tablets aren’t compatible with 5G infrastructure. A number of handset makers, including market leader Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., plan to launch 5G-enabled devices next year.
The first flagship smartphones to support the technology will ship with Qualcomm Inc.’s recently introduced QTM052 mobile antenna module. The penny-sized device is the only product on the market that can process signals on the millimeter spectrum band. That’s the frequency range set to be used by the fastest 5G connections, which are expected to provide data rates of up to 5 gigabits per second.
But it will take a while before the average consumer will start seeing those kinds of speeds. In a statement to The Verge, AT&T said the newly launched 5G network provides a theoretical maximum data rate of 1.2 gigabytes per second but noted that “actual speeds will be lower.”
There’s also the matter of availability. AT&T and the other major U.S. carriers, which are expected to bring their first commercial 5G networks online next year, are all taking a gradual approach with their rollouts. Coverage will initially be limited to a relatively small number of major cities.
AT&T has taken an early lead in the race with today’s announcement. The company will seek to press its advantage in early 2019 by expanding 5G coverage to parts of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. Pricing will start at $70 a month for 15 gigabytes of data.
“This is the first time when the mobile 5G era,” AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch said in a statement in a report which is revealed. “Being first, you can also expect us to evolve and soon we are going to dominate the market very quickly. It’s early on the 5G journey and we’re ready to learn with the fast-growing and continually iterate in the months ahead.”