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If you’re in one of 35 US cities, Samsung’s new S20 Ultra and S20+ phones will bring a dramatic boost to AT&T performance, according to tests we did this week. Samsung’s two new phones are the first consumer devices to support AT&T’s millimeter-wave “5G+” network, which according to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence has speeds averaging 518Mbps down. I took them for a walk in Manhattan, and I’m impressed.

Millimeter-wave (mmWave) is the high-speed, short-distance technology Verizon has heavily leaned into for its “5G Built Right.” It’s much faster than 4G; I’ve gotten speed tests on Verizon up to 2Gbps, and on AT&T over 1.3Gbps. MmWave is only suitable for central cities, campuses, and sports venues right now, because you need to put a cell site about every 1,500 feet. But in those areas, which attract millions of people every day, it can be a huge boost in speed and capacity.

AT&T launched its “5G+” system in late 2018, but this is the first time it’s been available to consumers. We tested it in Dallas and Las Vegas, but at the time you had to be a specially selected business subscriber to use it.

In my tests over the past two days in New York, I got an average download speed of 234Mbps and a maximum of 522Mbps on AT&T’s 5G+ system, as compared to an average of 65Mbps and a maximum of 204Mbps on AT&T’s “5GE” 4G system. That makes a considerable difference for 5G+.

AT&T’s 5G+ speeds are something to crow about.

On uploads, 5G made less of a difference, but it was still noticeable. 5G+ uploads averaged 20Mbps and maxed out at 61Mbps, while uploads on 4G tests averaged 8Mbps and maxed at 18Mbps.

It’s a nice network, if you can get it.

AT&T currently says it has 5G+ over many major metro areas.AT&T currently says it has 5G+ over many major metro areas.

The 5G Indicator Means Nothing

Testing the S20 Ultra reminded me that the only “5G” indicator that matters on AT&T is when the phone says “5G+,” or millimeter wave.

AT&T has three variants of things it calls 5G. “5GE” is just 4G. “5G” is low-band 5G, adding a tiny bit of 5G to a mostly 4G connection. Because of the ways spectrum combines right now, that is sometimes slower than 4G in the same location.

AT&T’s low-band 5G now covers about 80 million people in 58 metro areas, AT&T says. According to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence, download speeds on AT&T low-band 5G with Galaxy Note 10+ devices averaged 69Mbps in February, as opposed to 61Mbps with Galaxy Note 10+ devices on AT&T “5GE” and 4G LTE. So … not much of a difference. Millimeter-wave “5G+,” on the other hand, delivers a big difference.

AT&T needs to use more low-band spectrum for 5G.AT&T needs to use more low-band spectrum for 5G.

On my walk I frequently saw a “5G” icon when my tests were 100 percent running over 4G. There was no 5G being used. If the network decides a 4G spectrum combination is better than a 5G spectrum combination, but there is a 5G node on the cell, it will feed you the 5G indicator but transfer data using only 4G. That’s going to confuse everyone about 5G, even more than they’re already confused.

This isn’t just an AT&T problem. I sometimes saw the same behavior on T-Mobile, which also uses low-band 5G. The problem is with these carriers using tiny slices of narrow-band 5G to activate an icon when they don’t provide a noticeable performance difference, the way 5G+ does.

5G confusion is a real problem. According to an online survey done by virtual carrier Ting, 19 percent of iPhone users think they’re already on 5G. They aren’t—iPhones don’t support 5G—but they do support “5GE” and 5GHz Wi-Fi.

The smallest panel on this cell site is for 5G+, or mmWave.The smallest panel on this cell site is for 5G+, or mmWave.

How About Some Maps, AT&T?

Unlike every other carrier, AT&T does not have detailed maps of its 5G coverage areas, just very zoomed-out maps of low-band 5G metro areas. So I took a walk. I found AT&T 5G+ up Avenue A in the residential East Village of Manhattan, plus on a few blocks of Gramercy near a major hospital and just south of Union Square, near the campuses of NYU and the New School University. It was more than I expected, and felt on par with Verizon in that neighborhood.

Orange is 5G+. Blue is LTE.Orange is 5G+. Blue is LTE.

I also, on a tip, took a walk around the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown and found what I’m getting used to with high-band 5G—what appears to be one or two sites turned on, giving a small radius but not neighborhood-wide coverage.

There's an AT&T 5G site right by the exit of the Manhattan Bridge.There’s an AT&T 5G site right by the exit of the Manhattan Bridge.

I’m frustrated by AT&T’s unwillingness to offer maps. AT&T says it has coverage in 35 cities, but that coverage may be only a few blocks. It’s impossible to tell without maps. There’s no way to know.

That said, this network is going to expand. It has to. This is AT&T’s speed and capacity play for the next year. The company’s low-band 5G network, while delivering a 5G indicator for the marketing department, doesn’t meaningfully increase capacity because it uses so little spectrum for 5G. The Galaxy phones also support DSS, the technology AT&T will use to start turning its mid-band spectrum over to 5G, so when it starts doing that, these phones will support it.

Looking more closely at some sites on Avenue A in Manhattan, I found about a 750-foot cell diameter and top speeds in the 300-400Mbps range. That’s a somewhat smaller diameter than I’ve seen with Verizon in New York or with AT&T in Las Vegas, but I think the dense urban canyon landscape had a lot to do with that. It’s clear still that the challenge is that they’re going to have to put a panel every three New York blocks if they want to get neighborhood coverage.

A closer look at 5G+ speeds and range.A closer look at 5G+ speeds and range.

The somewhat good news is, I know AT&T has been working towards this for more than a year. Back in 2018 I profiled AT&T’s Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) buildout in Chicago, and I’ve seen AT&T LAA around Manhattan as well. LAA is a short-distance LTE technology that uses similar airwaves to 5GHz Wi-Fi, and has a similar range to mmWave 5G. If AT&T can get mmWave onto its LAA sites, it’s getting somewhere.

The speeds I saw in New York were slower than I saw in previous tests in Dallas and Las Vegas, and they’re slower than the speeds I’ve seen on Verizon’s mmWave network in New York. This is notable because as far as I know, Verizon and AT&T are using the same amount of spectrum in Manhattan, and so speeds should be similar.

I don’t have a good explanation for this, but I look forward to getting crowdsourced numbers once there are more Galaxy S20 Ultra phones on the streets. Still, though, I saw triple the average 4G speed I got in the same area.

How Much Does This Matter?

I know what you’re thinking. Do dramatic speeds on a few blocks of a few cities matter? Well yeah, sure, if you live or work there. I’m willing to bet that mmWave coverage will expand, especially in the cities where AT&T has already installed it. Later this year, mid-band DSS will further improve performance.

For now, the Ultra and the S20+ will be the only phones on AT&T with this capability. The smaller S20 will not have 5G+. The upcoming LG V60 will not, either. I’m not convinced that AT&T’s low-band “5G” offers any performance improvement right now, so consider those other phones effectively 4G.

I’d especially recommend 5G+ phones to AT&T customers in New York. Because of AT&T’s chaotic spectrum layout here, owners of older phones often have trouble with data connections in this city. Moving up to a Galaxy S10 helps; the S10 can bind together all of AT&T’s different lanes of 4G spectrum. But the additional boost you’ll find from mmWave will be a real thrill.

How does this square with my discomfort over the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera? Right now I’m advising to hold off until we see a camera software update, which I think is coming. I’d also look out for reviews of the S20+, which has a different camera system, which may thus solve the problem completely.

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