AT&T and 5G: Best to Wait
by Ken Dulaney
5G has much promise to bring forth high-speed, pervasive networks. Not only will watching video become more economical, but 5G will interconnect the vast network of IoT and spur new applications not presently in the mind of the mobile public.
Shopping for a 5G-Enabled Device
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 is its first phone form factor to serve the 5G market. It consists of 3 models that vary in increasing size and capability, the S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra. As Aragon’s mobility analyst, I was eager to try out the 5G world once AT&T, my current carrier, indicated through its coverage maps that Redwood City, California, where I live, was in coverage.
First stop was amazon.com where I found an unlocked S20 Plus, shipped by Samsung for $999. There was the option to trade in my old phone but after a bout of confusion with a misleading website that seemed to say I could get $400 for my Galaxy S9+, which turned out to be about $150, I decided to buy it outright.
My first choice was an unlocked phone because I often try different services. Also, when I travel internationally on vacation, trips that range from 14–18 days, I find that Google Fi at $60/month flat rate is a better deal than paying AT&T $10/day. I could not use Google Fi if the phone was locked to AT&T wireless.
Struggling With AT&T
Got the phone as promised, did the conversion using Samsung SmartSwitch, and went off on a walk. While the phone performed much better than my S9+, I noticed that there was no 5G symbol at the top of the screen, only AT&T’s misleading 5GE, which is really upgraded 4G LTE. Called the 611 help desk. They told me that they could provision my phone for 5GE, but I would not be able to get 5G or voice over WiFi service. They said AT&T might support the unlocked phone someday but couldn’t tell me when.
So I packed up the phone and returned to Amazon (I really love how easy they have made it to return items when a legitimate mistake is made). Went over to my local Costco store to secure an AT&T S20 Plus. The price jumped to $1199 with a $50 Costco card credit that I should receive in a few weeks. All the details were moved over, and I returned home to fire up SmartSwitch to migrate my S9+ to the S20.
Started my daily walk and again noticed that I was only getting 5GE. Called 611 again and they informed me what I should have been told at the Costco booth. You only get 5G with their unlimited plans. I am on a less than 10GB plan that costs me about $90 for 2 phones. I was told that if I wanted 5G, my plan would have to be upped by $40 to the lowest cost unlimited plan. Given there is not yet a widespread 5G footprint for AT&T nationwide, almost $500 more per year just wasn’t worth it.
I suspect that AT&T, who is extremely close with Apple, is waiting to introduce more economical plans at the Apple next-generation smartphone launch later this year (Sept–Nov). You would think that they would want more people testing the 5G like me. Probably some tie-up with Apple that forces AT&T to wait. Oh well. But there was no excuse for the poor information or omissions I got from the reps I spoke to. They knew my current plan, and they knew what I wanted. They should have said “here is exactly what you can and cannot do.” And most assuredly, I will take some of the blame for making some assumptions I really should not have. I am keeping the S20 Plus. It’s a great phone. Hopefully, I will be a happy 5G user sometime later this year!
While Samsung makes some great phones, AT&T cell phones have trouble supporting 5G access. For this reason, it's best to wait on 5G with AT&T until the infrastructure is more extensively rolled out.