AT&T has joined T-Mobile and Verizon in providing 5G home Internet service, a wireless alternative to traditional wired forms of residential broadband.
I wrote about the T-Mobile and Verizon services last year (“5G Home Internet Is a Good Alternative To Wired Broadband,” 31 March 2022). Each involved setting up a router-style device that creates a local Wi-Fi network and taps cellular bandwidth for the backhaul link to the Internet. I tried out both services with temporary access provided by the carriers.
AT&T was a no-show then but has recently been testing an equivalent service in a few spots around the country. In August 2023, the carrier made it official, offering AT&T Internet Air in portions of 20 major US metropolitan areas—including my hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I’ve been trying out the $55-per-month AT&T Internet Air, which I am paying for because the company didn’t furnish tech-test access. I’ve also been retesting the T-Mobile service with access provided by the carrier. Verizon didn’t provide access, and I couldn’t revisit its service on my dime because my residential address is not listed as qualifying for it (a fact that didn’t stop the company from helping me out last time).
I’ve found that AT&T Internet Air provides solid, if not spectacular, performance at a reasonable cost. I would have been more excited about it last year, but my broadband landscape has shifted since I tested the T-Mobile and Verizon services.
At that time, the cellular services consistently outpaced my wired Xfinity Internet connection and often left it in the dust. But a recent Xfinity hardware upgrade brought improved performance at no extra cost. Plus, some home Internet users increasingly have access to other super fast wired-broadband services—such as Lumen Technologies’ Quantum Fiber in the Twin Cities and other metro areas—at a reasonable cost.
Wired improvements hardly render the wireless services obsolete. Everyone has to weigh speed, convenience, cost, and reliability when picking among Internet services in their areas, and in many cases, the wireless variants will be contenders.
Not everyone can avail themselves of wireless Internet connectivity, however. Although the T-Mobile and Verizon services are broadly available across the contiguous United States, the AT&T service is less so for now (see the accompanying chart excerpted below). Even within official service areas, not everyone can sign up because carriers determine eligibility for each postal address, its proximity to cell towers, and the strength of the 5G signal at that location based on network congestion and other factors.
The AT&T All-Fi Hub
Last year, I was enchanted with the minimalist routers Verizon and T-Mobile sent me. Verizon’s device is a cute white cube with a red checkmark logo. T-Mobile went for a more dignified tone with its tall-ish, dark-gray rectangular obelisk. I can only imagine the industrial-design conversations in AT&T labs: “Let’s make our cellular thingie bigger and weirder!” And so they did.
What I unpacked initially reminded me of the gigantic airships of the late 1800s—though, upon further inspection, AT&T’s All-Fi Hub more resembles a Bluetooth speaker. Regardless, it’s a beast compared to the rival routers. I couldn’t tuck it onto a bookshelf, as I had with the others, so I found a table and put it in one of my third-floor windows facing the street to confound my neighbors and optimize my 5G signal.
The All-Fi Hub is white plastic with a black base. The back has a couple of big cutouts for a vent and two Ethernet ports, a USB-A port (not intended for consumer use), and a reset button. A big Wi-Fi Protected Setup button is in a corner.
As you saw in the first two photos, the front of the All-Fi Hub features a data readout made up of big white dots that display Lite Brite-style patterns to convey useful information—paired, often redundantly, with a multi-colored notification light.
The All-Fi Hub alone might not be sufficient to broadcast a good signal into all corners of a large home with multiple floors or thick walls, so it supports similar-looking extender gadgets for an extra $10 per month (up to five extenders for that single additional price). This sets the AT&T Internet Air service apart from its competitors, which offer no such hardware. But the cost would still add up significantly over several years.
Setting Up AT&T Internet Air
AT&T’s Internet Air service, like its competitors, is designed for self-setup. It’s supposed to be so easy that a technician visit isn’t necessary. No such in-person help exists, though there is phone support. I ran into a few hiccups, and I was glad I could get help quickly.
My biggest error was not registering and paying for my service on my laptop before trying to set up the All-Fi Hub. That caused a world of hurt. Don’t be me. Things went fairly smoothly after I got past the registration phase.
Setup mostly happens using AT&T’s Smart Home Manager app, which runs on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, though it is not “verified” for the latter. There’s also a Web version of Smart Home Manager, but it’s bare bones—assuming you can get it to load. AT&T’s website is lousy and apparently not intended for service setup. Stick with the app.
To start, you scan a QR code on a sticker on the All-Fi Hub’s base. That is when you log in to the account you previously set up. You’re then prompted to find a spot in your home with a strong cellular signal based on elevation (typically the highest floor in the house and near the ceiling at that location) and direction (based on where the closest cellular tower is). The All-Fi Hub’s info dots coalesce into signal bars and speed readings while a light at the base shines green, yellow, or red—indicating an excellent, adequate, or poor signal.
You’re also nudged to customize your network SSID and password—be sure to change at least the password.
The Smart Home Manager app remains useful after setup. You can use it to run speed tests, test signal strength, track data usage, monitor automatic AT&T ActiveArmor security scans, gauge if you’re on the best Wi-Fi channel for reduced interference, configure user profiles and per-device permissions, set up guest access, and troubleshoot hardware problems.
How Fast Is AT&T Internet Air?
No Internet service is worth the price if it cannot reliably and consistently provide decent download and upload speeds. AT&T Internet Air passed the test in my location. On paper, it is slower than its competitors, but in real-life use where I live, it achieved approximate parity.
AT&T promises download speeds of 40 to 140 Mbps, and that has roughly been my experience, with downloads sometimes surging to 250 or 300 Mbps. The advertised uploads of 5 to 25 Mbps also approximately match what I have seen.
Those are relatively large ranges, partly due to the unpredictability of cellular connections. If you have regularly performed speed tests on your iPhone, you’ve surely noticed that numbers can be all over the place. Wired Internet service is a lot more consistent, in my experience.
When I tested it last year, T-Mobile Home Internet regularly hit 200 Mbps and often peaked at 250 Mbps. The carrier advertises downloads of 72 to 245 Mbps. T-Mobile didn’t perform as well this year, with downloads in the 100 to 150 Mbps range, but the service remains quite reliable.
That’s not the case for everyone. TidBITS publisher Adam Engst told me his parents tested the T-Mobile Home Internet service in upstate New York because it promised significantly faster throughput than their DSL connection. They found the performance wildly variable but always better than their DSL connection, particularly for uploads. Unfortunately, the service dropped entirely a number of times during the trial, causing them to return the cellular hub and stick with their usually reliable DSL.
In comparison, Verizon 5G Home Internet regularly exceeded 250 Mbps and sometimes topped 300 Mbps in my testing, roughly matching its advertised downloads of 85 to 300 Mbps. The service is capable of much greater speeds, in the neighborhood of 1 Gbps, but only in the nooks and crannies of certain cities (including Minneapolis and St. Paul) where it supports a turbo-charged flavor of 5G called “millimeter wave” (I don’t qualify).
Because I didn’t have the Verizon option at my disposal this time, I checked with a neighbor who has it. Steve and his wife Lana signed up about a year ago after experiencing reliability issues with their Xfinity service. Verizon was, until earlier this month, their primary Internet source, it has been reliable, and they have no major complaints. They reported download speeds of about 150 to 200 Mbps and uploads around 15 Mbps, which is a major slowdown compared to my tests, but not a dealbreaker.
Wireless vs. Wired
Steve, however, recently signed up for Quantum Fiber (while keeping Verizon as a backup for now). That gave his residence a considerable speed boost with “symmetrical” uploads and downloads—about 800 Mbps up and down—which isn’t far off Quantum’s advertised gigabit performance for $75 per month. 500 Mbps costs only $50 per month, similar to Verizon’s service.
If Quantum proves dependable, Steve says he’ll eventually drop Verizon. I’m of a similar frame of mind: Why would I use a wireless service if I could get much faster wired broadband for a similar price?
I investigated the T-Mobile and Verizon services last year with a big question in mind: could either replace Xfinity broadband? The answer was a tentative yes. Back then, I wrote that my wired broadband “has been reliable for the most part, but I fret about the bang for my buck. Am I paying too much for the Internet speeds I’m getting?”
At the time, my Xfinity downloads hovered around 100 Mbps with single-digit uploads, which I found profoundly unsatisfying in light of what the wireless services gave me. But when I visited an Xfinity store earlier this year to swap out my near-obsolete modem for a new model, a staffer told me that it would boost my speeds dramatically for no extra money.
Indeed, I now see consistent downloads of about 1 Gbps, a tenfold increase, and uploads of up to 100 Mbps, eight or nine times faster than I experienced before. As a result, I now have zero interest in wireless home broadband.
Who Is Wireless Internet For?
But that’s just me. AT&T Internet Air or one of the rival wireless Internet services could be perfect for your household, based on various factors.
- It may be your best option: You might not have access to high-speed wired Internet where you live (Quantum, for instance, can only serve the minority of homes in its Twin Cities territory where it has installed fiber). If one or more of the wireless services work there, you are golden.
- It’s fast enough (for many): Not all subscribers are power users with dozens of online-connected devices in their residences and demanding needs such as online gaming and high-res streaming. Some just want a reliable and reasonably speedy service, and one of the wireless ones could be more than sufficient.
- It’s convenient to set up: You can do it yourself, following simple instructions. No technicians will tromp into your house. Nobody will string unsightly cables from the alley to your house and drill holes into walls to poke cords through (which would have happened at my home with a Quantum installation a couple of years ago if I hadn’t aborted it at my alarmed wife’s request).
- It’s minimal and flexible: The equipment is unobtrusive—well, not so much AT&T’s All-Fi hub—and there are no unsightly wires other than the power cord. As a result, you have flexibility in where to put the device. My Xfinity router, on the other hand, is an eyesore that’s tethered via coaxial cable to a wall port beneath my standing desk.
- It is mobile (kind of): When you submit your address for service eligibility, you attest you will use it only at that address and won’t lend it to a friend or take it in your camper on a cross-country road trip. But if you are moving across town or to another eligible city, you can ask to have the hardware registered to the new address. Encore setup is then a breeze.
- It could be a bargain: Wireless carriers are all about incentives, some of which apply to the home Internet services. AT&T, for instance, will take $20 off your $55 monthly bill if you’re using an eligible phone plan (but there is no requirement to be a pre-existing AT&T customer). Further, AT&T Internet Air has no annual contract, no overage charges, and provides a 12-month price guarantee. T-Mobile and Verizon take a similar approach.
- You have little or nothing to lose: All the services have free trials, so you can see if the speed and reliability are sufficient for you. AT&T is stingiest with a one-week test period, while T-Mobile provides 15 days, and Verizon offers a full month of free use. The trial period may not be enough time for you—but you can take an extra month at your own expense, with no lock-in, and ditch the service if you’re not satisfied.
The Bottom Line
I have come away satisfied with AT&T Internet Air, if not blown away by the service. Its speeds aren’t spectacular, especially compared to wired broadband options available to me, but they’re more than adequate for average Internet users and—at least based on my real-life use—are roughly on par with those T-Mobile and Verizon provide.
Wireless broadband performance tends to be more variable than wired alternatives, no matter which of the services you choose. However, reliability is more critical, and in my weeks-long testing, AT&T proved to be quite dependable—at least, no less so than its competitors. I experienced infrequent, extremely brief service interruptions, but that also happens with my Xfinity service and was also the case in my T-Mobile and Verizon testing.
I approve of the fact that AT&T Internet Air offers its own Wi-Fi extenders—as Xfinity has done for years and Quantum has recently begun to do—instead of making customers look into third-party products. There is a good chance you wouldn’t need the extenders, though. My AT&T All-Fi hub, placed in a central location in my home, gave my three-floor residence decent coverage, much as my newer Xfinity router also does. I wish the AT&T All-Fi hub were smaller and less obtrusive, but that’s a minor gripe.
If you’re looking into wireless broadband, you should consider AT&T Internet Air alongside the services from T-Mobile and Verizon. Choosing among them would come down to availability in your location, price, performance, and reliability.