You can’t trust the icon.
Image: AT&T

The road to 5G is complicated, and to get there, we’re going need a whole lot of new infrastructure, devices, and updates to make it work. But it seems in its quest to be first, or the best, or something, AT&T is cutting some corners to make it seem like 5G has arrived earlier than expected.

Apparently, for this particular grift, AT&T is planning to replace the “4G LTE” icon on certain Android phones with an icon that says “5G E,” even though those devices won’t actually be running on a true 5G network.

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In a description on AT&T’s website, the company explains its nonsensical upgrade by saying “5G Evolution (5G E) is our first step on the road to 5G. Our improvements are already enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network.” The key part of that sentence is the use of “existing LTE,” which refers to 4G LTE, not 5G.

AT&T then goes on to justify this change by saying its 5G E service is enhanced by features like 4X4 MIMO, which increases the total number of antennas used to send and receive data, and 256 QAM, which is a technique used to increase the effective bandwidth of a single channel or signal. And while those things do make it possible to deliver faster data speeds, at the end of the day, that still doesn’t make 5G E the same as true 5G.

To make things even more confusing, 5G E is just one of three different 5G markers AT&T plans on using. The will also be a vanilla “5G” icon, and a “5G+” icon, with the latter denoting the use of millimeter wave bands like the ones AT&T is using in a handful of cities getting true 5G service as early as this year.

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One of the reasons AT&T is able to do this is partly because 5G is defined somewhat nebulously, with the “G” in 5G used to denote the evolution to fifth generation wireless networks. The true definition for 5G used by more carriers is based of the 5G NR standard, which specifies the use of a more advanced framework that includes mmWave radios and support for expanded frequencies to deliver speeds in excess of a gigabit per second.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time a wireless carrier has tried to represent its network as being better than it is. Previously, in the run up to 4G LTE, a number of carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint classified networks using WiMax or HSPA+ as 4G when they really weren’t. (Though, in a weird twist of fate, some of those standards were retconned later to fall under the qualifications needed to meet 4G LTE standards.)

Currently, it’s not clear which phones will be subject to AT&T’s icon switcharoo, but in a statement made to FierceWireless, AT&T said, “Initially we’ll roll this out on a handful of devices, with more devices showing the indicator in spring 2019.”

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Furthermore, because there still isn’t a single 5G-ready phone on the market, if you suddenly start seeing carriers make claims about upgrading your service to 5G on a phone you’ve owned for a while, there’s your cue to start being suspicious. So just because there’s an icon that says 5G E, that doesn’t mean your service has definitely improved.

Update January 7, 2:35pm ET: AT&T’s baffling 5G E icon is going live now for some users of two LG handsets, the V30 and V40, and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Active, according to the Verge.