AT&T plans to roll out nationwide mobile 5G by early 2020, CEO responds to '5G E' blowback

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As U.S. wireless carriers hurtle headlong toward a 5G future, AT&T on Wednesday revealed plans to blanket the nation with access to the super speedy protocol in early 2020 using its lower band spectrum technology.

Source: AT&T

According to AT&T, the mobile 5G rollout will be accomplished on sub-6 GHz frequencies, meaning the carrier intends to aggregate low band signals in its initial deployment. The revelation also confirms AT&T will refarm low band spectrum to facilitate the transition to 5G.

Deployment of the lower band 5G network, which AT&T is branding "5G," is expected to commence in the second half of 2019.

The nation's second-largest carrier by subscribers is in the midst of rolling out a standards-based mobile 5G network over millimeter wave spectrum that typically operates at 28 and 39 GHz. Wider 5G coverage will be reliant on lower bands farmed from existing LTE spectrum.

Branded 5G+ by AT&T, mmWave technology provides consistently high speeds and low latency, but suffers from inherent propagation issues, making it an ideal solution for dense urban areas. Customers in areas with 5G+ coverage will access the network via Netgear's Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, which sells for $499 alongside a 15GB data plan for $70 a month. AT&T is also working with Samsung to offer two 5G+ smartphone models this year.

In the interim, AT&T is building out a 5G foundation network dubbed — confusingly — "5G Evolution." Built on LTE technology, 5G Evolution is capped at a theoretical 400Mbps compared to gigabit speeds promised by mmWave. AT&T customers with compatible phones can access 5G Evolution in more than 400 markets.

AT&T's decision to assign the 5G Evolution label to its transition network, and subsequently update device software to display a "5G E" connection icon, has drawn condemnation from competing carriers who say the designation is a misnomer. This week, executives from Verizon and Sprint decried the move, calling it "misleading."

Responding to industry fervor, AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan on Wednesday said the hubbub around 5G Evolution "makes [him] smile," reports The Verge.

"Every company is guilty of building a narrative of how you want the world to work," Donovan said at an appearance at CES 2019. "And I love the fact that we broke our industry's narrative two days ago, and they're frustrated and gonna do what they're gonna do."

The 5G Evolution branding and accompanying 5G E icon that recently showed up on customer phones is designed to help users understand the capabilities of their current network, Donovan said. AT&T is apparently doubling down on the strategy and will roll out the 5G E change to more devices this spring.

Apple is not expected to jump on the 5G bandwagon until 2020, though the company is thought to be testing supporting chipsets for iPhone in preparation of a public debut.