AT&T is about to brand much of its existing cellular network as “5G Evolution” or “5G E.” Your phone’s “4G” logo may transform to a “5G E” logo after an update, but nothing has actually changed.
Update: When real 5G launches, AT&T will call it “5G+“. That’s truly absurd.
The Results Are In: AT&T’s 5G E Is Bad
Since this piece was published at the end of December 2018, AT&T has gone ahead and rolled out its rebranded network. Just as we predicted, 5G E is not good. A study by OpenSignal published on March 22, 2019 found that AT&T’s 5G E was actually slower than the 4G LTE service from Verizon and T-Mobile, although it’s pretty close.
Twitter is now full of tweets showing 5G E running at slower speeds than competing 4G LTE networks in the real world, too. That’s because it’s not real 5G. At best, it’s just the same 4G LTE other carriers are offering.
Dear AT&T: Updating people’s status bars to say “5GE” is bad and you know it’s bad.
Not only is it just regular LTE… but long term, results like this will diminish what regular people thing 5G actually is. pic.twitter.com/eumqzUZaxK
— Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) April 2, 2019
What Exactly Is 5G Evolution?
AT&T originally announced “5G Evolution” back in 2017. It’s not a technical standard, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just branding for marketing AT&T’s existing 4G network.
Specifically, AT&T says its 5G E network includes features like “carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, [and] 256 QAM.” According to AT&T, these technical upgrades offer faster data speeds. That’s all true, but these are just additional features on top of 4G LTE. Other cellular carriers also offer them, but continue to brand their networks as “4G LTE.”
In other words, AT&T’s move is deceptive. AT&T has added a few features that make its network faster than plain-old 4G LTE, but it’s not anywhere near close to 5G. AT&T says this paves the way for its “evolution to 5G,” hence the name.
AT&T is about to take the next step and roll out software updates for some of its Android phones, as it confirmed to FierceWireless on December 21, 2018. Many Android phones on the AT&T network will suddenly claim they’re connected to a “5G E” network rather than an “LTE” network. The Verge calls this a “fake 5G logo.”
It’s all just marketing. “5G E” doesn’t mean AT&T’s network is any faster than another carrier’s LTE network, which may offer the same features. It’s just branding that makes AT&T look like it’s ahead of other carriers.
How 5G E Is Different From Real 5G
5G E isn’t 5G at all—it’s 4G LTE. Sure, it’s 4G LTE with some extra features that make it faster, but many carriers have rolled those features out and still call their networks plain-old 4G LTE networks. “5G E” is meaningless.
Real 5G is the actual fifth generation wireless standard the industry is working on right now. It requires new hardware radios that support 5G, and it won’t work with existing phones. There’s no chance of your current phone getting a software update to support 5G.
While AT&T says 5G E is up to twice as fast as its old 4G LTE technology, 5G promises theoretical speeds up to one hundred times as fast. It also promises a huge reduction in latency, cutting maximum latency from 20ms on 4G LTE today to 4ms on 5G. 5G uses a whole new band of radio spectrum, and companies are experimenting with rolling out home Internet service via 5G. 5G is exciting and looks like a huge leap.
None of this is true about 5G E. It’s just a slightly improved 4G LTE, and only AT&T has the nerve to call that something different from “4G LTE.”
RELATED: What Is 5G, and How Fast Will It Be?
Carriers Muddied the 4G Waters, Too
This isn’t the first time this problem has occurred. Back when 4G was the hot new thing, cellular carriers called all sorts of networks “4G” even though they were just 3G.
Back in 2012, before real 4G LTE came out, AT&T had a 3G network. AT&T rolled out a technology called HSPA+ that improved 3G speeds, and AT&T branded that faster 3G network “4G.” AT&T got everyone—including Apple—to call its 3G HSPA+ network “4G.”
If you used an iPhone back then and you were on AT&T’s network, you saw the “3G” logo transform to “4G” overnight. But nothing changed except AT&T’s marketing terms. That’s happening again with the transformation from “4G” to “5G E.”
Today, everyone uses the term “4G LTE” to refer to real 4G networks that aren’t just those old rebranded 3G networks.
Why AT&T Is Making This So Confusing
Cellular carriers like AT&T want to make this confusing. There’s a lot of justified hype about 5G, so AT&T wants to make its network look better by sticking a “5G E” logo on it—even if it’s not real 5G.
Everyone wants to be first to say they have a 5G network. The easiest way is by redefining exactly what 5G is.
As with 4G, the situation is quickly becoming a mess once again. Industry standards groups define specific technologies that are considered “5G” or “4G,” but cellular carriers use whatever terms they like to market their networks. AT&T gets to hide behind the excuse that it’s saying “5G E,” not “5G.”
Of course, AT&T would say we’re wrong. AT&T would say it has improved its 4G LTE network, and that it wants to highlight how much faster the network now is. AT&T would also say that rolling out these technologies is somehow part of its network’s “evolution” to 5G, hence the name. But we don’t buy it.
Thankfully, no other cellular carriers are copying AT&T’s misleading marketing around 5G—for now.