A few years ago, AT&T took some major steps to convince its customers that it was leading the 5G charge. In December 2018, it launched the first 5G wireless hotspot device in 12 cities, or at least in the parts of those markets where 5G is available.
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In 2019, the carrier changed an indicator on some Android phones and iPhones to make it look like those phones may have connected to 5G networks. It used the label “5G E”, which made those phones look like they have connected to a 5G cell tower.
In fact, AT&T ran 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?
The letter “E” served as the first clue that something was fishy on AT&T’s end. The label was created to show that those phones are connecting to 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.
Don’t be fooled
This move by AT&T to shoehorn a “5G E” indicator on phones undoubtedly caused 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 didn’t actually launch until later in 2019.
Rival carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon called 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.”
In 2020, the National Advertising Review Board issued a press release, recommending that AT&T stop using the “5G Evolution” and “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G” statements in its ads. The panel stated that AT&T’s term “Evolution” was “not likely to alert consumers to the fact that the service is not 5G.” CNet got a statement from AT&T saying that while it disagreed with the decision by the panel, it would stop using those terms in its ads. However, the “5G E” icon would continue to be used on the smartphones that support it.
The bottom line: AT&T’s “5G E” is not really 5G, so you can essentially disregard the label. True 5G is now available from AT&T, but you will have to buy a new 5G phone to connect to AT&T’s network.