AT&T is trying hard to convince its customers that it is leading the 5G speed charge. In December 2018, it launched the first 5G wireless hotspot device in 12 cities, or rather in the “parts” of those markets where 5G is available.
Now, the carrier is changing an indicator on some Android phones (including Galaxy S8 Active and LG V30) to make it look like those phones may have connected to 5G networks. It uses the label “5G E”, which makes those phones look like they have connected to a 5G cell tower.
In fact, AT&T is now running TV commercials, with the tag line “Now with 5G E”. However, what does the AT&T 5G E icon really mean? And, if you see it on your phone, does it mean you are connected to a 5G network? The simple one-word answer to this last question is “No”.
What does the 5G E icon in your status bar mean?
It’s the “E” part that’s the clue that something is fishy on AT&T’s end. This label was created to show that those phones are connecting and using what AT&T calls “5G Evolution” technologies. This means those phones will be connected to towers that have features like three-way carrier aggregation, 4 x 4 MIMO antenna setups and 256-QAM modulation. While they offer faster download data speeds compared to standard LTE hardware, the top theoretical speeds only go up to 400Mbps, well below the speeds of true 5G hardware.
AT&T actually launched its “5G Evolution” offer in 2017, and the carrier said it would be available in over 400 markets by the end of 2018. The carrier told Fierce Wireless that a handful of Android phones would see the new “5G E” indicator at first, but more would display it in 2019.
For the limited markets where AT&T is selling its true 5G mobile hotspot, the carrier is using the “5G+” branding. The hotspot will use AT&T’s millimeter wave spectrum on the 39GHz band.
Don’t be fooled
This move by AT&T to shoehorn a “5G E” indicator on phones will undoubtedly cause confusion among some of the carrier’s customers, who might think their phone has magically been upgraded to true 5G speeds. The first smartphones with real 5G hardware are not expected to launch until later in 2019.
Rival carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon are already calling out AT&T on their misleading “5G E” label on their phones and in their commercials. T-Mobile did it with a funny Twitter video clip that showed a person covering up an LTE logo on a phone with a “9G” label. Verizon got more serious in a press release, saying they will only label a phone as 5G if has the hardware inside to connect to Verizon’s planned 5G network. It added, “We won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5. We will not call our 4G network a 5G network if customers don’t experience a performance or capability upgrade that only 5G can deliver.”
The bottom line: AT&T’s “5G E” is not really 5G, and so be aware of that if you see that LTE icon on your phone change over to that brand. True 5G is coming to AT&T, but you will have to buy a new 5G phone to connect to AT&T’s network, and that won’t likely happen for a while for most of you.