Confused by that “5GE” banner that’s popped up on your phone? You’re not alone

Coming soon?
Coming soon?
Image: Reuters/Rafael Marchante
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If you’re in the US and use AT&T as your cellphone network operator, you may have recently noticed a tiny change at the top of your phone.

The wireless carrier has been swapping out the “LTE” for “5Gᴇ” on the status bar at the top of many of its customers’ devices. Some of the more switched-on users may know that AT&T and just about every other mobile carrier are in the early stages of rolling out their 5G wireless networks, which promise considerably faster data speeds and near-instant connections to other 5G devices. What they’re less likely to be aware of is that “5Gᴇ” is not really 5G. At all.

In its own documentation on how it plans to roll out a 5G network, AT&T says that “5Gᴇ” stands for “5G Evolution” and confirms that 5Gᴇ runs on the company’s “existing LTE network.” While upgrades should allow more traffic to flow through the network (theoretically increasing the data speeds possible on the LTE network), speed tests Quartz has carried out around New York haven’t shown results that are even as fast as the US national average for LTE networks, let alone 5G.

AT&T plans to roll out something closer to the 5G capabilities we’ve been promised, which it’s rather confusingly calling “5G+,” in 12 US cities by the end of 2019. But even if its actual 5G network were up and running, there really aren’t many 5G-enabled devices to use on that network yet. Samsung’s first 5G phone, the massive Galaxy S10 5G, is reportedly launching in May; LG, Huawei, OnePlus, and ZTE are expected to have devices in the second half of the year; and Motorola has a $200 add-on for its Moto Z3 that turns it into an extremely thick 5G phone (thus far with limited uses).

So AT&T’s move is likely more of a marketing push to make people aware of the coming changes, though it seems this could backfire quite easily. Some customers might think they already have 5G, so why would they need to upgrade to a new 5G device when the 5G network actually arrives, while others might be upset at being given the impression they have access to 5G when they absolutely do not. Company executives weren’t immediately available to comment on the rationale behind the 5Gᴇ moniker.

Either way, if you’re on AT&T, you’re likely not going to have access to real 5G speeds on phones that can connect to 5G networks anytime soon—and be forewarned that when you do, it’s not going to be cheap.