The 5th Generation of wireless technology or 5G represents the latest stage in the development of mobile communications, and in the evolution of the phone, as manufacturers roll out a new breed of devices capable of fully utilizing 5G.
Telecommunications providers have been scrambling to be first in the race to deliver 5G service to their consumers, with its promise of greatly increased data transfer speeds, minimal latency or lag between the sending and receiving of signals, and the capacity to host many more devices simultaneously than previous generations of mobile networks.
For major carrier AT&T, 5G Evolution was a principal step in this journey. Which begs the question – what is 5G Evolution?
What Is 5G Evolution?
5G Evolution or 5G E, which was originally announced back in 2017, was simply a branding tool for marketing AT&T’s existing 4G network. With 5G Evolution, AT&T introduced a branded upgrade to its existing 4G infrastructure, enhanced by features such as three-way carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output), and 256 QAM.
For consumers, 5G Evolution was a confusing tactic that gave many AT&T customers the impression that they were now using a true 5G service. The “4G” logo on their cellphones would transform into a “5G E” logo after the system update, but the network they were using was not real 5G. At best, it was just the same 4G LTE service that other carriers were offering.
According to AT&T, these technical upgrades (which were additional features on top of 4G LTE), offered faster data speeds. They also paved the way for the “evolution to 5G” of AT&T’s 4G LTE services.
In retrospect, this was an important distinction for AT&T to make, as 5G Evolution isn’t actually 5G at all. Legally, it has effectively shielded the company from some of the negative repercussions of subsequent action taken by its competitors – but more on this later.
Notably, AT&T also undertook to name their service “5G+” once real 5G launches.
What’s in a Name?
This isn’t the first effort that’s been made to forcibly evolve cellular networks simply by renaming them.
When the 4G standard was first introduced, cellular carriers called all sorts of networks “4G” – even though they were still one form of 3G or another. In fact, due to the high specifications of true 4G, the current 4G LTE standard is as close to it as the available technology has been able to get.
This didn’t stop carriers from obfuscating the truth. For example, back in 2012 (before real 4G LTE emerged), AT&T rolled out a technology called HSPA+ that featured improved 3G speeds, and called it “4G.”
Looking back even further, T-Mobile called its 3G HSPA+ network “4G” in 2010. And prior to switching to 4G LTE, Sprint called its old WiMax network 4G.
Reality Check: 5G Evolution vs 5G
At the current level of technology, the fastest type of true 5G operates on radio frequencies that were previously unused by 4G, giving it a much greater capacity for carrying and transmitting data. Data transfer speeds of 1,000Mbps (megabits per second) are typically achievable, compared to a maximum of around 100Mbps for 4G LTE. True 5G also promises a huge reduction in latency, cutting the maximum latency from its current level of around 20ms (milliseconds) on 4G LTE down to around 4ms.
While AT&T maintains that 5G E is up to twice as fast as its old 4G LTE technology, 5G Evolution speeds in the field are hardly outstanding. Even under ideal circumstances, 5G E can only provide speeds averaging around 40Mbps. Compare this to AT&T’s own previous average of 37.1Mbps on 4G LTE – or the Verizon 4G LTE network’s 57.3Mbps.
Elsewhere, tests comparing AT&T’s 5G E network against T-Mobile and Verizon’s 4G LTE networks found that 5G E downloads were consistently slower than 4G LTE in New York City.
Obfuscation and the 5G Capable Smartphone
As we previously observed, when AT&T rolled out its 5G Evolution, users on the network saw their phones suddenly claim to be connected to “5G E” rather than an “LTE” network. AT&T also rebranded some of its latest 4G LTE phones, giving buyers the impression that these phones are similar to the 5G devices due to arrive in the coming months.
According to AT&T, there are about 20 or so devices that support the technologies underlying 5G E. Apple’s iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR began displaying the 5G E logo with the release of iOS 12.2. Some Android phones fitted with Qualcomm’s X24 LTE modem are also included, like the Galaxy S9, Galaxy S10, and Note 9 series. LG devices such as the LG V30 also qualify.
None of these phones magically gained 5G capabilities when AT&T upgraded its 4G LTE infrastructure to 5G Evolution. The new generation of true 5G devices are currently in development and will feature new hardware and chipsets, enabling them to use the new network. A simple software upgrade on existing 4G LTE hardware won’t make it compatible with true 5G.
The AT&T Coverage Map
Fully committed to its 5G E-marketing strategy, the carrier published an online AT&T 5G Evolution map, detailing AT&T 5G Evolution cities where the company had been preparing its towers for a 5G network, with LTE upgrades it called 5G E. This infrastructure upgrade essentially added the network capacity on the back end for 5G, including upgraded fiber network connections.
The 5G Evolution map has since been superseded by AT&T’s standard coverage maps, which now show areas where true 5G coverage is available. This isn’t the only transition that 5G E has undergone.
Towards the Extinction
As a marketing gimmick, 5G Evolution was pretty shameless – at least, according to AT&T’s principal competitors.
T-Mobile condemned the move as “fake 5”, and Verizon issued a statement to the effect that: “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.” Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T over its use of 5G E. This was settled out of court last year, with AT&T continuing to use the 5G E icon.
However, following an unsuccessful appeal to an advertising industry review board, AT&T said it would stop using its “5G Evolution” marketing message with effect from May 2020. AT&T has said that it will comply with the National Advertising Review Board’s recommendations, including halting the use of “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G.”
Despite this ruling, the controversial 5G E connectivity icon, which appears on smartphones when AT&T’s customers are still connected to the carrier’s 4G LTE network, is not affected by the decision.
So, the 5G Evolution continues in this form – at least, for now.