Don’t Fall for the 5GE Lie

A quick explainer about the difference between true 5G and AT&T's 5GE

5G

 Adrian Mangel / Lifewire

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An open-plan office is good for many things, like quick conferences with coworkers sitting across the aisle and easy access to someone else’s trashcan. It’s also prime territory for a little eavesdropping.

I was focused on a different edition of your favorite newsletter when I overheard what might be best described as a spirited discussion.

“I have 5G,” said one coworker.

“You do not,” replied the other.

“It says 5G here,” said the first guy, holding up his iPhone.

“Not possible, your phone doesn’t have a 5G Chip.”

5GE on an iPhone
It's 5GE, the sort of, but not, 5G flavor.  Lifewire

This went on for long enough that I got up and inserted myself into the conversation.
“Is it 5GE and you’re on AT&T?” I asked. The guy who thought he had 5G blinked at me and then I saw the light of recognition.

“Yes…I think it is 5GE.”

Hello, Not Really 5G

A couple of years ago, AT&T announced its intention to launch 5G Evolution (5GE), what it calls, to this day, “our first step on the road to 5G. We’re starting by enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network.” 

As that statement makes clear, 5GE is not built on a 5G network, it’s an optimization of existing LTE technologies to squeeze an incremental speed boost out of the existing 4G LTE system.

What is 5G, Anyway?

5G mobile broadband connectivity, which is rolling out in a handful of markets across the country (Verizon announces new cities almost every week), is predicted to fundamentally change digital communications, and not just between your smartphone and a cell tower, but between smart devices, cars, infrastructure, and more. Just this week, Verizon used a 5G backbone to power internal communications at the Emmys.

The road to 5G ubiquity has been slow and bumpy because, even leaving 5GE out of the picture, there are a number of competing and confusing 5G flavors:

  • Millimeter Wave
  • Massive MIMO
  • Millimeter Wave 600 Hz
  • Ultra Wideband

Don’t worry about trying to understand what any of those mean. What matters here is that all these 5G versions have speeds that far surpass the best 4G LTE has to offer. 

5G can, according to preliminary tests in Chicago, achieve speeds of up to 600 Mbps. Good 4G LTE can get you connection speeds of between 30 and 36 Mbps.

Most reports put 5GE speeds at around 40 Mbps. In other words, not much faster than LTE. In some cases, 5GE has been reported as slower than LTE. My coworker admitted that sometimes his 5GE is slower than what he gets when connected to LTE.

My problem with AT&T calling its 5GE network 5G is that the phones where it’s currently showing up literally do not have 5G-capable modems. No Apple iPhone—not even the collection of new iPhone 11s Apple just launched last week—is 5G-capable. Yet all of them can display the 5GE icon on their home screens.

I guess I can kind of understand why Apple’s okay with this. It lets them look like they’re in the 5G game without actually being in the game until they’re technically ready.

It’s Not Real

But I’m less sanguine about what AT&T is pulling here. This marketing scheme is misleading consumers who are interested in 5G, but do not fully understand it or its implications. In any other consumer category or service, consumers would be up in arms. Imagine, for example, filling your car tank with “Super Unleaded E” gas only to learn that the fuel is just a slightly better version of regular unleaded (maybe with more Ethanol) and not “Super” at all.

5GE is not built on a 5G network, it’s an optimization of existing LTE technologies

When I asked AT&T directly about if it’s concerned about creating confusion surrounding hardware-based 5G, a company spokesperson sent me back this statement:

“As we’ve stated since we first introduced 5G Evolution in January 2017, it’s our first step on our path to 5G, [and it] offers an enhanced wireless experience and is available in over 500 markets today—using optimized, advanced technologies and additional spectrum to deliver up to 2X faster speeds than AT&T standard LTE on capable devices.”

So, what is “an enhanced wireless experience”? Is it a misguided belief that you have something you don’t really have? Is it a wedge between AT&T and those networks that are only offering 5G service to those with 5G phones?

There has been turmoil in mobile broadband networks in the past, but I’ve never seen such a blatant attempt to muddy the waters and sow confusion.

So What?

I eventually told my co-worker, as gently as possible, that he was wrong in his assertion that he has 5G, but I added that it’s not his fault. The blame sits with AT&T, which, in 500 markets, has now convinced thousands of unsuspecting customers that they have 5G on their old 4G LTE phones, when they definitely do not.

You will hear a lot more about 5G networks and phones in the next 24 months, but until you buy a phone that will probably have 5G in the name (Samsung, Motorola, and LG all have them) and you are living in a neighborhood with 5G cell towers, you are not on a 5G network. Do not believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.

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