AT&T's Nighthawk 5G: Potential Download Could Cover a Wide Range of Speeds

Expect a wide range of download speeds from AT&Ts Nighthawk 5G unit as you use the hotspot in AT&T's initial 5G cities.

Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

December 21, 2018

3 Min Read
AT&T's Nighthawk 5G: Potential Download Could Cover a Wide Range of Speeds

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s first 5G mobile network is now online in 12 cities in the US.

As I reported on Tuesday (December 18), the network will initially be available in parts of 12 cities in the US. At first, AT&T is offering its Netgear Inc. (Nasdaq: NTGR) Nighthawk 5G hotspot, for free with 90 days of free data, but only for select businesses in the 5G coverage areas. (See AT&T's 5G Switches On in 12 US Cities, but Only for 'Early Adopters'.)

The hotspot won't be offered to the wider public til the spring of 2019. The price for the unit is a hefty $499, charging $70 for 15GB a month. The hotspot is intended to support up to 20 WiFi connections from the 5G device, although supporting so many connections is likely to put a hole in your data bucket pretty quickly.

AT&T told me that the device can "eventually reach a peak theoretical speed" up to 979 Mbit/s "in ideal lab conditions." Translation: Never gonna happen in the real world.

So what sorts of speeds can we expect? Well, AT&T is using 39GHz millimeter wave spectrum for its "5G+" branded offering, similar to the 28GHz spectrum used for Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s pre-standard, fixed wireless "5G Home" service.

Verizon has promised downloads of 300-Mbit/s to 1-Gbit/s for the service. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said earlier this month that speeds are "coming to" 800 Mbit/s or 900 Mbit/s, with a guaranteed 300 Mbit/s down "minimum." (See Verizon's Vestberg Mum on 2019 Capex but Ebullient on 5G Prospects.)

Of course, a fixed-wireless service with "white glove" installation of 5G antennas and customer premises equipment (CPE) will deliver more predictable results than a pure wireless service. (See Getting Real About Mobile 5G Speeds.)

Particularly when an operator is using previously untried spectrum for its wireless service. Millimeter wave signals cover 100 feet to 200 feet and can be blocked by people, walls, low-energy glass and foliage (See Nokia Bell Labs & Verizon Stretch Fixed 5G to the Home, 5G Phone Designers Coping With 'Human Blockage' and Could 5G Have Found Its Glass Ceiling?)

I asked AT&T about the coverage offered by the Nighthawk:

"The 5G mobile hotspot operates on mmWave, which is comprised of frequencies with very short-range coverage," an AT&T spokesperson said via email. "As we continue to expand our network, we'll deploy more small cell-like infrastructure to help distribute the connection across a particular area."

AT&T expects to collect more speed range data as the 5G service is offered live: "We are just rolling out the hotspot and will begin gathering actual speeds... This device can also access our 5G EVO and 4G LTE networks, which is a great advantage and very useful for our selected customers when not in 5G+ coverage," AT&T said.

Light Reading's US News Editor, Phil Harvey, has noticed some of the "5G EVO" upgrades to the 4G LTE AT&T network in and around Dallas, TX. He reports getting 50 Mbit/s downloads in town with an iPhone 6, compared to around 4.5 Mbit/s download back at chez Harvey.

Of course, this is way off the peak speeds of 400 Mbit/s promised by AT&T, but does show a performance bump on everyday equipment, even without the benefit of the latest in multiple antenna arrays in the phone. (See AT&T Rolls Out Faux 5G in 100+ US Markets.)

Remember that 5G supports "dual connectivity"; the device is always connected to a 4G network, even when there is a 5G link. So, a user never loses cellular connectivity with the next generation specification. All of this gives a glimpse of the wide range of speeds that will be observed on AT&T's first 5G device.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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