AT&T says older phones can’t use its new 5G band

(Image: AT&T/Graphic: The Desk)

AT&T says phones made and sold prior to this year will not be able to use its newer fifth-generation (5G) wireless frequencies, a setback that puts one of the biggest phone providers at a disadvantage compared to its peers.

On Wednesday, the technology website Ars Technica reported AT&T had walked back a statement made earlier this year that promised flagship phones manufactured by major electronic firms would be able to support its new 3.45 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum, which the company acquired through a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction.

The new 3.45 GHz spectrum is colloquially referred to as “mid-band” and has the potential to offer faster data transfer speeds at farther distances. The 3.7 GHz, or “low band,” spectrum offers comparable speeds to the company’s fourth-generation (4G) LTE network, while its millimeter wave frequencies offer much-faster speeds over a much-shorter distance.

Earlier this year, AT&T’s Vice President of Network Chris Sambar told the technology website CNET that Apple iPhones and some Android phones sold within the last few years would receive a software update allowing them to access the new mid-band spectrum. Some 5G-capable tablets and hotspots would also receive the update, Sambar said.

This week, AT&T spokesperson Jim Greer said Sambar’s statements were “provided by mistake and then incorrectly confirmed,” and that only newer-model Apple and Android devices like the iPhone 14 and the Galaxy S22 phones would be able to connect to the newer frequencies on the carrier’s 5G network.

“We regret the error and apologized to the reporter and his readers for the mistake,” Greer said.

AT&T continues to sell phones with three-year payment installation plans that have access to some, but not all, of the carrier’s 5G frequencies. Marketing material reviewed by The Desk did not seem to indicate which phones were capable of using AT&T’s mid-band spectrum.

Providing incorrect information to reporters is just one of several mistakes AT&T has made concerning its wireless network.

Two years ago, AT&T sent customers with older-model phones a message that warned its third-generation (3G) wireless network would be decommissioned. The tone of the message led customers to believe their phones were at risk of not working, when in fact the company had set a date two years into the future for turning the network off. The company didn’t tell customers that the phones would still work on its 4G LTE network, which it continues to support today.

In January, AT&T grabbed headlines when it announced an unlimited data plan sold through Walmart that offered priority access to its 4G LTE and 5G networks for $45 a month, making it one of the cheapest premium offerings in the industry. Several months later, the company quietly pulled the data plan after The Desk reported AT&T didn’t disclose that the plan was only available to Walmart customers who paid full price for a new prepaid smartphone.

AT&T has also been criticized over the perception that it misled customers when it chose to brand certain connections as “5G E” on smartphones. Those connections were actually using an improved version of AT&T’s 4G LTE network, which supported advanced technologies like multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) transmissions and three-way signal aggregation.

When it comes to 5G connectivity, AT&T’s issues seem to be unique to the carrier: Customers of Verizon and T-Mobile are able to connect to each carrier’s mid-band 5G spectrum, even when they use an older, 5G-enabled iPhone or Android device. And neither T-Mobile nor Verizon tried to pass off their older, 4G LTE networks as 5G when they weren’t.