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Not confusing at all: AT&T says millions of 4G phones will soon run on ‘5G E’

By Jeremy Kaplan

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An icon indicates 5G E on a mobile phone
AT&T says the 5G E indicator in the top-right corner of this image depicts an advanced 4G LTE network. AT&T

When is 4G not 4G? When it’s 5G, of course.

Last year, AT&T announced its plans to rebrand potentially millions of 4G LTE smartphones to make it appear as though they are on 5G networks — explaining that many technologies deeply linked to the faster 5G networks mobile carriers plan to roll out over the next few months have already been introduced on the company’s existing 4G network. Now, it has begun rolling out the rebrand, with the Samsung Galaxy A8 Active, LG V30, and LG V40 all showing the new misleading 5G E logo.

Of course, there has been significant backlash over the move from AT&T, with many arguing that it’s misleading and aimed at convincing users that they’re using the latest and greatest tech when really they’re not. When asked about this, AT&T Senior Vice President for Wireless Technology Igal Elbaz defended its practices, arguing that “what we’re trying to do is let them know that there is an enhanced experience in their market.”

“We’ve been talking about 5G Evolution for a while now. We were pretty public about what we were doing and what we were deploying,” Elbaz said in an interview with Tom’s Guide. “All of our investment in the infrastucture and hardware is all 5G ready, so the moment the 5G software and the 5G devices show up, it’s a software upgrade to our network to enable our customers to move to 5G.”

5G networks promise blazing speeds and nearly non-existent latency, leading to not just faster download speeds but a wide range of applications outside of simply mobile phones. Carriers are actively introducing “fixed wireless” options to let consumers use mobile networks in their houses, for example, providing a much-needed alternative to cable and DSL. The networks could also have applications ranging from self-driving cars to virtual reality to smart homes — if some serious technology hurdles can be avoided.

Meanwhile, 4G LTE, short for Long Term Evolution, continues to well, evolve. Gigabit LTE is an ongoing effort to improve the existing 4G networks, as a way to bridge 4G and 5G. It offers some of the benefits of 5G and relies on advanced technologies to get there, things like carrier aggregation, which uses multiple frequencies on cell towers to send data to and from your phone; 256-QAM, which allows more data to be transferred at one time; and 4×4 MIMO, which adds additional antennas to devices, allowing your phone to better pick up signals, thus resulting in increased speeds.

Advanced LTE? Yeah, we got that already, AT&T is claiming, noting that many of those technologies are already a part of its networks in certain areas. And in those spots, phones that had been showing little 4G LTE icons in the top right corner of their display screens will instead carry 5G E indicators, the company says.

Meanwhile, AT&T is actively rolling out a new 5G network across the country, recently announcing the launch of 5G networks in 12 cities across the U.S.: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Waco. Service is initially limited to pre-selected customers and will be provided for free for at least 90 days.

Updated on January 9, 2019: An AT&T executive has defended the company’s use of the 5G E logo.

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