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AT&T’s Netgear Nighthawk 5G hotspot, the first consumer mobile 5G device, has been on the market for about a week now, but it’s hard to find any evidence that anyone’s using it. One post on Reddit shows a Speedtest result of 194.88Mbps down — impressive, until you see that the Redditor got 187.44Mbps on AT&T’s 4G network in the same location.
Otherwise, AT&T’s, Netgear’s, and Reddit’s forums are deathly quiet when it comes to any actual 5G users, and Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence database doesn’t seem to show any dramatic speed upticks in AT&T’s 12 announced 5G cities. The carrier doesn’t seem to have shown the 5G device to any journalists, and there are zero hands-ons being shown on YouTube. The company declined to make a unit available to me when I asked, saying they needed to save the relatively small inventory for customers.
That said, we haven’t found any evidence that the customers are actually out there in any noticeable number. AT&T’s 5G launch appears to mostly be a paper launch, so the company can say it “launched” in 2018.
The extremely early form of 5G the hotspot is using has lower peak speeds, at approximately 625Mbps, than the carrier’s existing 4G LTE+LAA network, which explains that Redditor’s experience. I explained more about what’s going on with 5G speeds in my story, AT&T’s 5G Will Be Slower and Faster Than LTE. In short, 5G has huge potential but it’s very, very, very, very early right now.
I’ve asked AT&T for more comment, but most of their PR people are off for the holidays.
Unfortunately for everyone, AT&T still plans to muddy the waters by putting a fake “5G” indicator onto its 4G phones. As Fierce Wireless reported, AT&T will soon start changing the “4G LTE” indicator to “5G E” in situations where AT&T offers gigabit LTE. While people who read tech blogs won’t be fooled, millions of less technical consumers will almost certainly think their phones just got a magic upgrade to 5G even though they won’t see improved performance.
The essential element of a 5G network is a new, incompatible-with-older-phones radio system called 5G NR (new radio) which requires new hardware, like the Netgear hotspot. The grain of truth in AT&T’s big lie is that 5G is also a network of networks: initially it can’t even operate without a 4G connection, and one future aspect of 5G will bond 4G and 5G NR channels together for faster speeds. But for AT&T to put a big “5G” stamp on its “5G Evolution” 4G network is to mislead customers and to turn everything on its head.
To use a food metaphor, because it’s Dec. 28, in this case think of 5G NR as a cheesecake and 4G LTE as the crust. Most cheesecakes come with a crust; they’re bonded to each other and make each other better, especially if it’s a graham cracker crust. If you were handed a plate of cheesecake without crust, though, it would still be cheesecake. But if you were just handed a plate of crust, well … that’s “5G E.”
We’re sure to see more 5G shenanigans early next year, and I’ll do my best to try to get more details out of AT&T and Netgear at the CES 2019 trade show next week.
This article originally published at PCMag