AT&T boasts about 5G service in 19 cities, but there’s still no phone that can use it

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The state of 5G continues to be a mess, as big US telecoms race to one-up one another by being the first to deploy hobbled versions of the next-gen networking technology across the country. AT&T now boasts 19 cities with 5G service as of today, but there’s once again a big caveat: there aren’t any smartphones that can use it yet. Furthermore, AT&T’s only available true 5G device, a mobile hotspot it provides, can’t yet be purchased in stores.

The only two 5G smartphones that will be made available to US customers so far this year are the Verizon-exclusive Samsung Galaxy S10, which doesn’t even have a firm release date, and the Verizon- and Sprint-exclusive LG V50. (Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is supposed to come in a 5G version as well, but there’s no carrier announcement for that yet.) That hasn’t stopped AT&T from using this arbitrary and largely meaningless milestone as a marketing opportunity. “There are now 19 cities across the nation where AT&T is the only carrier to offer mobile 5G service to businesses and consumers, well ahead of our competition,” the company’s press release reads.

AT&T is promising customers it will get access to the 5G variant of the S10 later this spring, as well as another 5G smartphone from Samsung later this year that we can only assume at this time refers to either the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 10 or a newer variant of the S10 that supports both the mmWave and sub-6 spectrum, thanks to Qualcomm’s new X55 chipset.

But until then, the only device that can access its network is the Netgear Nighthawk 5G hotspot. The device is only available to select business partners and some customers in its early 5G markets, but not in stores. Not only that, but even if you as a regular customer did want purchase it without going through AT&T’s test program, which requires you sign up and be selected, it would cost $500. The hotspot contains the Qualcomm X50 chip, which means it only supports the short-range, mmWave 5G on AT&T’s network. Presumably, AT&T plans to launch an updated hotspot with the X55 later this year, said to support both with broader coverage. (The X50 hardware supports both mmWave and sub-6 right now, but not on AT&T’s network architecture as it is designed today.)

AT&T is far from alone in muddying the 5G waters. Verizon may have the first commercial 5G handset as an exclusive to its network, but the company’s 5G deployment is far less robust than AT&T’s. While AT&T first launched 5G in 12 cities late last year, Verizon only just began offering its version of the service in “select areas” of Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Verge went to the Illinois metropolis last week to try it out ourselves, and while the speeds were certainly blazing fast, coverage was terribly shoddy. You can also only access it using the midrange Motorola Moto Z3 with the 5G Moto Mod. Similarly, Verizon is relying only on the short-range, mmWave spectrum, so you need to be physically nearby one of its 5G nodes in downtown Chicago to access it. Walk around the corner, or put a hard surface not made of glass between you and the node, and you’ll likely drop back down to LTE.

So both companies’ 5G strategies are a bit of a marketing disaster right now, and surely leading to some serious confusion. 5G will undoubtedly arrive at some point in the next couple of years, with smartphones carrying proper 5G modems to support the standard and deliver those promised high speeds. But until now, AT&T and Verizon are racing one another to the finish line of a race only the two companies care about. In the meantime, we as customers are stuck with silly ploys like the imposed AT&T 5G E logo which, if you recall, is not actually real 5G, but yet another trick aimed at making AT&T look like it’s arrived at the future faster than its corporate rival.

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