The sordid history of 5GE, or when 5G isn’t 5G at all

In their quest to deliver true 5G technology, wireless carriers have understandably tried every possible angle to promote their own 5G services as superior to the competition. This has resulted in a confusing assortment of letters and symbols often appearing after the letters “5G” on your smartphone to suggest that you’re getting service that’s somehow better than the norm.

While that might be true in some cases, there’s at least one exception where it means the exact opposite: AT&T’s “5GE” or “5G Evolution” probably isn’t what you think it is.

When 5G isn’t really 5G

Adam Doud/Digital Trends

AT&T has taken the plunge on the transition to 5G. To capitalize on the hype around 5G, it decided to try to communicate to its customers that it was gearing up for the new technology – “evolving” its network to 5G, if you will.

For many carriers, the road to 5G requires some upgrades to existing 4G/LTE networks, and AT&T was no exception. However, rather than waiting for its proper 5G infrastructure to be in place and ready to support its customers, the operator has decided that it should label its enhanced 4G/LTE network as the “5G Evolution” network, and the label “5GE” was born.

However, no matter what your smartphone tells you, “5GE” is not 5G. The symbol that appears in your status bar is not magically determined by the iOS or Android operating systems by looking at the cellular network your phone is on; it is entirely there at the whim of the carrier.

When AT&T made this trick in 2019, many people were misled into thinking that their 4G/LTE smartphones had suddenly acquired 5G capabilities. For example, even though Apple didn’t release its first 5G device until the iPhone 12 arrived in 2020, AT&T customers with an iPhone XS or iPhone XR started seeing a “5GE” icon. light up on devices when iOS 12.2 landed in early 2019. Owners of the Samsung Galaxy S10 and the original Pixel 4 had similar experiences.

No 4G/LTE smartphone can get 5G capabilities via software update. This was deceptive marketing by AT&T, plain and simple, and rivals soon began calling out the carrier for its nonsense.

5GE has not been well received

An icon indicates 5G E on a mobile phone
AT&T

Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T, stating that “the significance of AT&T’s deception cannot be overstated”. One of Sprint’s concerns was that AT&T’s “false advertising” would damage the reputation of true 5G by misleading consumers into believing that 5G was no faster than 4G/LTE.

“Calling its network 5GE doesn’t make it a 5G network,” Sprint’s complaint read, and it “misleads customers into thinking it’s something it isn’t.”

To make matters worse, 5GE turned out to be a bit Slow down than its competitors’ 4G/LTE services, which was not surprising given that it’s just 4G in disguise. However, one might have expected that AT&T’s “enhanced” 4G/LTE network would actually result in performance improvements.

An early 2019 report from Opensignal confirmed that AT&T users with “5GE-enabled smartphones” had a better experience than “users with lower-performance smartphones,” but it also clarified that these “5GE-enabled” devices nothing special – they’re just smartphones with reasonably modern 4G/LTE capabilities.

Chart from 2019 comparing download speeds on 5GE and 4G networks.
Signal open

“AT&T users with a 5GE-enabled smartphone receive similar speeds to other carriers’ users with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5GE,” the report adds.

Although Sprint and AT&T have “settled” their lawsuit, it’s clear that Sprint didn’t get everything it asked for. Sprint wanted an injunction that would have prohibited AT&T from using the “5GE” designation or something like that. However, a source told the Dallas Business Journal, which first reported on the settlement in 2019, that AT&T would continue to use 5G Evolution advertising because “our customers love it.”

It wasn’t until the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) censored AT&T in 2020 that the carrier agreed to back down, at least partially. The NARB determined that AT&T’s “claims” [would] mislead reasonable consumers into believing that AT&T offers a 5G network,” and although AT&T said it “did not agree with the reasoning,” it promised to abide by the decision of the NARB.

In doing so, AT&T stopped advertising “5G Evolution”. However, he never gave up using the 5GE icon on his devices.

So what is 5GE then?

Simply put, 5GE is nothing more than a silly name for advanced 4G LTE service. This includes state-of-the-art features such as carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM. Yet none of this is different from what Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint were already offering customers with a 4G/LTE symbol.

In other words, 5GE doesn’t make sense. In fact, if you have a 5G-enabled smartphone on AT&T, you can humorously confirm for yourself that it’s not really 5G. Go into your settings and turn 5G off completely, and the “5G” or “5G+” icon may change to “5GE”. This is not a bug; 5G is actually disabled on your phone, but of course 5GE is not 5G.

Unfortunately, there are situations where 5GE may actually be faster than true 5G service, but that has more to do with how carriers have built their low-band 5G networks. It’s not that 5GE is anything special; it’s just that low-band 5G is hampered by the need to share the airwaves with 4G/LTE signals.

To deploy 5G as quickly and widely as possible, carriers have turned to lower-band cellular frequencies already carrying 4G/LTE signals. This was possible thanks to a feature of 5G known as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS).

When 5G signals operate on the same frequencies as 4G/LTE signals, they have to give way to older technology because it doesn’t know how to share. As a result, 5G can only fit into the remaining spaces. Since 5GE is only 4G/LTE, it takes priority over true 5G traffic when the network is congested. However, the same thing happens for Verizon customers whose phones say 4G/LTE.

Ultimately, when you see “5GE” on your smartphone, you are on a 4G/LTE network. It’s the same level of service you’d get from 4G on a Verizon or T-Mobile phone; AT&T just uses a different icon.

What about other 5G symbols?

The good news is that 5GE is the outlier when it comes to blatantly misleading 5G symbols. The other symbols you’ll see under the 5G icon on your phone usually mean you’re on a better version of the carrier’s network.

Verizon uses “5GUW” or “5GUWB” to identify its 5G Ultra Wideband network, depending on which device you’re using. This initially consisted exclusively of mmWave cells in a few major urban centers, but the carrier recently expanded this to include its mid-range C-band spectrum.

AT&T uses “5G+” or “5G Plus” in the same way, although its customers are much less likely to see this icon appear. AT&T’s mmWave is confined to dense venues like stadiums and airports, while its midrange C-band rollout has been slower, covering just eight cities at present. AT&T still uses “5GE” to this day, but you’ll only find it if you step away from actual 5G coverage. Maybe AT&T should call it “5G Less.”

Despite having the most extensive mid-range 5G network, T-Mobile has chosen not to adorn its 5G icon. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, your phone will simply say “5G” whether you’re on low-band, mid-band, or high-band mmWave. With T-Mobile, unless you’re in a rural area, chances are you’ll be on the company’s Midband Ultra Capacity 5G network anyway, and T-Mobile doesn’t feel the need to let their customers know about it.

While some people may find it useful to know when they’re using their carrier’s best 5G services, these icons are essentially marketing gimmicks that tend to divide customers into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. A plain old 5G icon is boring, and even if you’re using 5G, it’s low-band 5G, which means you probably won’t get much faster speeds than 4G/LTE.

Either way, as long as your smartphone shows a 5G icon without an “E” at the end, you’re getting the best 5G service available for your current location.

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