The spread of super-fast 5G wireless service is prompting carriers to get more competitive, at least for family plans.
On Thursday, AT&T, which had been limiting 5G to its highest-priced plans, added 5G access to its cheapest unlimited plan, which costs $140 per month for four lines. That comes a day after T-Mobile announced a new $100-per-month, 4-line 5G plan, which costs $20 less than its previous cheapest plan. Verizon, the largest consumer carrier, has yet to react. Its cheapest plan with 5G is $180 per month for four lines.
AT&T and its rivals have been spending tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their networks to 5G, which ultimately promises to hit speeds 10 to 100 times faster than the average 4G LTE connection. Now comes the race to sign up customers. The price cuts come as 5G coverage is finally starting to reach more of the country. AT&T said on Thursday its regular 5G service is now available in almost 400 U.S. cities covering 200 million people. T-Mobile hit 200 million people covered with its regular 5G service back in December. And the price of a 5G phone is also coming down, with new models costing less than $600—including LG’s new Velvet 5G model and Samsung’s Galaxy A71—arriving in recent weeks.
“5G just won’t be a premium-tier type capability,” AT&T executive vice president Andre Fuetsch who is the chief technology officer of network services, says. “I think you’re going to see it open up and expand and become more attractive to a wider audience.”
T-Mobile’s deal also lets customers add a new 5G compatible phone, the Samsung Galaxy A71, for each line for an additional $5 per month.
“We’re bringing heat to the competition this summer,” T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert quipped in a promotional video touting the new offer.
Still, the experience for customers won’t reach maximum 5G speeds in most places. The networks that T-Mobile and AT&T have rolled out widely offer speeds only slightly faster than 4G. Only in parts of a few dozen cities have the two carriers added the fastest type of 5G, which can reach speeds over 1 gigabit per second, fast enough to download a movie in a few seconds.
Verizon has so far launched only the fastest type of 5G, but only in parts of 35 cities. Verizon has often moved more cautiously than its rivals, and analysts expect it will likely follow with its own cheaper 5G plan in coming months.
A Fortune test of the three carriers’ 5G networks earlier this year found truly high-speed 5G spots to be few and far between.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed some parts of the tech economy, wireless carriers have largely continued to expand their networks. Working outdoors on cell sites and antenna towers, crews have been able to distance themselves and keeping working despite the pandemic.
“The network build has continued to go quite well,” AT&T’s Fuetsch says.
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