Some AT&T customers will begin seeing what are essentially fake 5G signal indicators in 2019, with the wireless carrier just confirming that a number of its subscribers will have their "LTE" designators replaced with a "5G E" icon. The latter is an abbreviation of the established term "5G Evolution" AT&T has been using for commercial purposes since early 2017. The network operator was often criticized for that marketing decision seeing how nothing entailing 5G Evolution actually comprises real 5G technologies – those based on the 3GPP's 5G New Radio standard.
The change will only affect select Android devices and only affect signal indicators when those handsets are connected to a radio tower AT&T already upgraded with its 5G Evolution tech, the company said earlier today. While only a small subset of Android smartphones will support the "feature" initially, more will be encompassed by AT&T's new signal designation starting from next spring. The exact number of supported models is still unclear but seeing how 5G Evolution will officially be available in over 400 metropolitan areas throughout the country by the end of the year, many Android devices could eventually start showing the new indicator.
That term doesn't mean what you think it means
To date, AT&T remains adamant that its marketing language is appropriate because it denotes technologies that will bridge the gap "between Gs," i.e. help the company transition its customers from 4G LTE to 5G connectivity. Those solutions include 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), 4×4 MIMO, and other cutting-edge LTE platforms. The main issue AT&T's rivals and some industry watchers took with the term "5G Evolution" is that other telecom giants in the United States are currently also offering consumer-grade implementations of the same technologies but aren't claiming they constitute 5G in any shape or form, though the wording of AT&T's claims was always vague enough that the company was never forced to formally defend its marketing practices against claims of false and misleading advertising.
But 5G is still coming and it's coming soon
Following its mid-2017 debut in Austin and Indianapolis, 5G Evolution made its way to dozens of other markets across the U.S. and those metropolitan areas will also be the first to receive the company's real 5G mobile service. The network in question is technically going live today, along with a wireless "puck" made by Netgear which allows owners of contemporary smartphones to connect to the new network standard even though their devices technically aren't 5G-ready. However, given how AT&T is still refusing to talk about actual speeds, today's launch is largely being interpreted as a marketing stunt as even though the new service is certainly the first in the U.S. to rely on the 5G NR standard, it likely isn't objectively superior to the wireless carrier's existing 4G LTE offering.
5G Wars Episode IV: A New Level Of Pettiness
AT&T is widely believed to have launched the new network solely for the purpose of being able to claim it's the first to commercialize 5G NR, whereas its largest rival Verizon likely had similar reasoning when it opted to commercialize 5G Home in early October, debuting a fixed wireless access solution that's solely meant to be a broadband alternative and is severely limited in terms of scope, scalability, and overall capabilities. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are already in the process of mocking one another for not delivering "real 5G" to consumers and while all of them are technically right, none of that matters in the short term; while actual consumer-grade services and smartphones designed to utilize the next generation of wireless connectivity will likely become available by the second quarter of 2019, their limited scope and speeds will likely keep the vast majority of consumers away from them until at least 2020 when nationwide coverage is expected to become a reality. In the meantime, expect the stateside wireless sector to continue waging its war of pettiness, claiming niche industry firsts that don't matter for end users in the slightest.
AT&T's actual 5G service will be branded as 5G+ for the time being, starting with twelve metropolitan areas that are receiving it today. The rest of the wireless segment in the U.S. has yet to reveal the branding of their upcoming 5G NR solutions but are likely to do so no later than late February, which is when Mobile World Congress is set to start in Barcelona, Spain.