The era of 5G mobile networks is quickly approaching, and while there isn’t any smartphone out yet sporting the new network connectivity, AT&T says that “select” early adopters will soon be able to jump on AT&T’s mobile 5G mmWave service with a mobile hotspot. AT&T’s 5G service kicks in on December 21 in some cities, which AT&T says makes it “the first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network.
The hotspot hardware is a “Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot,” which Netgear is calling the “first standards-based mobile 5G device in the world.” Netgear’s 5G hotspot comes in at a pricey $499 and sounds ridiculously overbuilt. Despite being a mobile router/modem that has very little to do computationally, the Nighthawk is packing one of the newest, fastest SoC’s on Earth, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 SoC.
This is something we’re expecting to see inside all the high-end Android smartphones of 2019, so packing it into a modem that won’t run any apps or games seems a little extreme. As a “5G” mmWave device, the Nighthawk 5G comes with Qualcomm’s X50 mmWave modem, and, since this modem was developed alongside the Snapdragon 855, it seems like, if you want a mmWave modem right now, you also need Qualcomm’s highest-end SoC. That leads to this very overpowered hotspot.
This is all using Qualcomm’s first-generation 5G hardware, which makes it significantly bigger than the more mature 4G hardware that Qualcomm has been refining for years. We don’t have any official specs or size measurements, but the Nighthawk 5G hotspot definitely looks huge—it’s a big, bulky black box with a tiny screen in the center. The touchscreen gives you access to a basic OS for things like setting up Wi-Fi, viewing data limits, and reading messages.
As for the network, AT&T is annoyingly muddying the waters with its 5G branding. It’s going to start calling its existing 4G LTE network “5G E” where the “E” stands for “evolution.” Its real 5G network, the mmWave one, will be called “5G+,” referencing the higher frequency of a mmWave network.
If you need a quick mmWave refresher: the current LTE spectrum is pretty packed, so mmWave moves to a higher frequency, which means faster speeds and lower latency. MmWave comes with significantly limiting trade-offs, though, like worse penetration, smaller range, and more susceptibility to weather when compared to LTE. A mmWave signal can be blocked by your hand, a tree, a building, and even rain or fog. The industry’s solutions to mmWave’s problems are more towers everywhere and significantly more complicated devices with tons of antennas. There’s even talk of limiting 5G networks to only cities. LTE is not going away any time soon.
AT&T’s December 21 5G launch isn’t quite open to the public but will instead be offered to a select group of early adopters. The company says that, “starting next spring,” normal customers will be able to buy the Nighthawk 5G for $500 along with a 5G data plan, which will run 15GB of data for $70 a month. On one hand, this is more than the $50 plan AT&T currently offers for an LTE mobile hotspot, but the $50 plan is only for 10GB. If you’re going by price per GB, the 5G plan works out to $4.67 per GB, while 4G is $5 per GB.
You will, of course, need to be on the very small list of cities where AT&T’s mmWave currently works. The company says its mmWave network is live today in “parts of” 12 cities:
And in the first half of 2019, AT&T says “parts of” these cities will get mmWave:
If you’re outside the very small 5G coverage area, the good news is that the Nighthawk 5G also receives LTE. AT&T also doesn’t mention how fast your faster mobile Internet will actually be.