Those ridiculous AT&T '5G E' icons are arriving on phones

AT&T's 5G network may have gone live in a handful of locations, but don't be fooled if you see a 5G icon on your Samsung or LG smartphone: you don't actually have true 5G. The carrier has begun updating a handful of Android smartphones with its fairly misleading "5G E" symbol, which AT&T insists is a perfectly reasonable indicator that you're in "5G Evolution" coverage.

If you'd forgotten, 5G Evolution is what AT&T is calling certain upgraded LTE networks. It's not so much a distinct technology as it is branding for a handful of technologies. That includes features like 4x4 MIMO antennas, 256 QAM, and three-way carrier aggregation.

That would be fine, except other carriers aren't calling that 5G at all. Instead, they're technologies usually associated with LTE Advance and LTE Advanced Pro.

Where the confusion really sets in is when you consider which phones, exactly, are going to show "5G E" in their status bar. Initially it's the LG V30, LG V40, and the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active. A software update will now have them showing the new icon when they're in the presence of those LTE Advanced features.

Dig into it, and AT&T isn't exactly hiding what it's doing. "5G Evolution (5G E) is our first step on the road to 5G," the carrier explains. "Our improvements are already enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network."

Problem is, you might not realize that when you glance at the display and see the big "5G" and the little "E" next to it. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that suddenly your existing phone had logged onto a widespread 5G network. That's just what AT&T would like you to believe, anyway.

To be fair, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM, and features like carrier aggregation are all vital to 5G. For the foreseeable future, even with all the carriers – AT&T included – beginning to roll out their 5G networks they'll be concentrated in relatively small geographies. Surrounding that will be LTE Advanced, and then regular LTE around that again. Think of it as a set of big concentric cellular donuts.

There's a marketing win to be had if your 5G chunk of the donut looks bigger than that of rivals. Hence 5G Evolution, and hence the fact that the carrier's "most popular smartphones" are all going to end up showing 5G E in early 2019. Just don't get too excited when you see it: the real 5G won't just need a new network, but a whole new smartphone for you to take advantage of it.