Here we go again… another generation of cellular technologies and another way to confuse customers in the U.S. In the latest release of iOS 12.2, Apple joined many other Android manufacturers in adding the “5G E” logo for AT&T customers.
Similar to the transition to 4G LTE, where AT&T and T-Mobile misled its customers by adding a 4G logo on the iPhone, despite only being HSPA+ and not LTE, AT&T is now back at it again, labeling LTE-A as “5G E”.
So what is 5G E? Is it true 5G? Find out more after the break…
What is 5G E?
5G E, or 5G Evolution is a term coined by the U.S. cellular carrier AT&T. While it may sound cool and exciting, in reality, it’s simply a marketing tactic by AT&T to make it seem like they’re ahead of the curve, despite being behind by several years.
In the most basic terms, 5G E simply signals a device that is capable of supporting 4×4 MIMO, 256 QAM, and LAA technologies that are made available via the LTE-A or LTE Advanced specification. LTE-A in real world usage means you’ll get a theoretical gigabit-class LTE connection.
A statement from AT&T:
Today, some iPhone and iPad users could start seeing our 5G Evolution indicator on their devices. The indicator simply helps customers know when they are in an area where the 5G Evolution experience may be available.
This means that the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and the 2018 iPad Pros are all capable of 5G E and will show the 5G E badge with iOS 12.2 and beyond.
What AT&T is reluctant to tell its customers, however, is that these technologies have been available for several years with T-Mobile U.S. being the first carrier to roll it out back in 2014, with Verizon following suit in late 2016. AT&T is the latest U.S carrier to adopt the technology.
In essence, 5G E is simply a marketing tool used by AT&T to make it seem like they’re ahead of the curve. While iPhones typically display LTE when on any variation of 4G LTE, some Android devices will display LTE+ when using LTE-A technologies, which is much more fitting than 5G E.
Despite this, AT&T’s VP of RAN Gordon Mansfield believes having the 5G E indicator is the right move and that eventually people will forget about it:
Over time, all of those towers that are 5G E will ultimately have 5G capabilities. A lot of that, the timing at which that flip happens, there’s a lot of dynamics — how much capacity do you have, what software capabilities are available, but we very much will. Where we’ve deployed that infrastructure to support it, a lot of it is software upgradeable to support 5G. But you have to worry about how many (5G) handsets, how many users you have, you have to continue to serve a base of customers that have current handsets.
What is “real” 5G?
While AT&T will likely continue using the 5G E marketing, other carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile are looking to deploy actual 5G over the next few years, just like AT&T.
5G, when it rolls out, will be using millimeter wave technology, better known as 5G-NR. Similar to going from 2G to 3G, and then 3G to 4G LTE, 5G will be able to deliver more data, with more capacity, over a shorter distance.
But that’s not the full story. 5G will not only be for your smartphone, tablet, smartwatch or personal hotspot. 5G will bring in the first wave of smart “things”, and create an infrastructure to allow gadgets such as autonomous cars on the road to communicate with one another. Non-standard or “alternative versions” of 5G will also be coming into homes as well, as ISP’s look to use the technology to power home internet connections. While this isn’t technically 5G, companies such as Verizon are able to push multi-gigabit speeds at home, which should qualify as 5G.
5G will have a theoretical maximum of 20Gbps with latency as low as 1ms. The technology will make use of wider channels and greater capacity to deliver the lower latency and larger theoretical throughput. True 5G will be using much higher frequencies, 28GHz to 39GHz, for example, instead of lower frequencies such as 700MHz or 1900MHz. This allows for big pockets of spectrum with even larger channels. These higher frequencies have traditionally been used for backhaul, connecting multiple base stations.
Initial 5G devices will need to be backwards compatible with 4G LTE as carriers transition to the 5G networks. Just like any other transition, 5G-capable phones will more than likely stay on 4G LTE the majority of the time and will only use 5G where available.
When will 5G be available?
AT&T deployed 5G in 12 cities in December of 2018. The carrier is taking its launch quite slowly and is only making it available in a few neighborhoods per city. It will make use of its 39GHz spectrum for the initial rollout, with some 28GHz and low band spectrum later this year. The company plans to complete its nationwide rollout sometime in 2020.
Verizon is hard at work with its home internet plan. It’s now available to consumers now in four markets, and will begin its mobile 5G rollout sometime in 2019. Similar to AT&T, Verizon will also be using the 28GHz spectrum. Verizon’s home internet plans will be truly unlimited with no data caps (for now).
T-Mobile is using its recently acquired 600MHz spectrum to build out a nationwide 5G network. It will also be using the 28GHz spectrum. Rollout will be sometime in 2019 with full national coverage planned for 2020.
But don’t let T-Mobile fool you either, millimeter wave networks will require hundreds of MHz of spectrum to operate, and T-Mobile’s 5G rollout, according to PCMag), will be using an average of 31MHz of spectrum at 600MHz. This means that T-Mobile’s 5G network will reach more customers than ever before, but will have a marginal speed boost over 4G. T-Mobile’s 5G will have other benefits, however, such as low latency.
”Are we going to see average speeds start to move up by tens of megabits per second? For sure,” T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said. “We would love to see average speeds triple, or move to 100Mbps, but that’s a journey that’s going to take time in the industry.”
And last, but certainly not least, Sprint’s 5G network will operate on the 2.5GHz band. Unlike the other three carriers, Sprint’s 5G network will operate on the same cell sites as LTE and will give similar coverage to Sprint’s existing 4G LTE network. Details on Sprint’s 5G rollout are sparse at the moment, with no details regarding when the company will begin its rollout.
5G phones will be rolling out within the next couple of years, with the iPhone slated to be 5G-compatible in 2020. Similar to the initial 4G LTE phone rollout, expect for the first handful of devices to have mediocre battery life with 5G being spotty at best.
Needless to say, if you’re wanting to upgrade your smartphone now, there’s no reason to hold back and wait for a 5G phone.