You May Not Have Actual AT&T 5G, But At Least You'll Have An Icon

AT&T may only have a handful of places where you'll be able to access 5G in 2019, but that isn't going to prevent the carrier from showing a 5G status icon on phones, it has confirmed. True 5G service is expected to kick off commercially in twelve cities across the US from today, AT&T said earlier this month, but users outside of those locations may still think they're getting fifth-generation connectivity.

Indeed, the 5G icon will likely be showing up on smartphones before AT&T even has handsets that can tap into its fledgling 5G service. The twelve places true 5G will be available to use will initially only support a single device, a 5G mobile hotspot. 5G phones aren't expected to launch until later in 2019.

Instead what subscribers will get is a brand new icon, albeit one describing service they've already been getting. AT&T plans to change the LTE indicator on select Android phones to "5G E" it confirmed to FierceWireless.

The icon decision comes after AT&T's widely-mocked "5G Evolution" branding, which the carrier launched last year. Intended to distinguish more advanced LTE functionality – including 4x4 MIMO, carrier aggregation, LAA, and 256 QAM – it covers a range of systems that can, indeed, speed up LTE service on compatible devices. However, critics argued that describing it at 5G was a reach, and one which could easily muddy understanding of fifth-generation networks among consumers.

As such, the 5G E logo will be used when compatible phones are in areas where they can use 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM, and those other technologies. "If they have one of the latest Android devices and it connects to a tower that's enabled with 5G Evolution," an AT&T spokesperson explained, "they'll soon see a "5G E" indicator pop up on their screen."

Every carrier agrees that LTE Advanced will be instrumental in supporting 5G rollout. After all, while deployment roadmaps vary from operator to operator, the reality is that true 5G service will initially be limited to places like the center of dense urban areas. They'll be surrounded by LTE Advanced coverage, with 5G devices seamlessly transitioning between the two.

Where views differ is as to what those services should be called. Certainly, AT&T's push to brand what other carriers might call LTE Advanced as 5G Evolution has obvious branding advantages for the company: 5G is being positioned as the next big thing in wireless, but will only be available to a minority of subscribers for some time to come. Not only will it depend on them being physically located in a place with 5G service enabled, they'll also need to have upgraded to a device with a 5G radio.

AT&T opted not to confirm just how many phones it would be changing the iconography on at this stage, only saying that it planned to begin with "a handful of devices" and then continue that in Spring of next year. If you want to be sure you're getting actual 5G – by the broader industry consensus, that is – you'll want to be looking for the "5G+" badge instead. Of course, first you'd need to actually be able to buy a phone with support for that, something you won't be able to do for another few months yet.