The sordid history of 5GE, or when 5G isn’t 5G at all

In the quest to deliver true 5G technology, wireless carriers naturally try to promote their own 5G services as superior to the competition from every possible angle. This has resulted in a confusing array of letters and symbols that often appear after the letters “5G” on your smartphone to suggest you’re getting service that’s somehow better than standard.

While this may be true in some cases, there is at least one exception where it means just the opposite: AT&T’s “5GE” or “5G Evolution” is not what you probably think it is.

When 5G isn’t really 5G

Adam Doud/Digital Trends

AT&T waved off the move to 5G. To capitalize on the hype surrounding 5G, it decided it would try to communicate to its customers that it was gearing up for the new technology — “evolving” its network to 5G, if you will.

For many carriers, the path to 5G requires some upgrades to existing 4G/LTE networks, and AT&T was no exception. However, instead of waiting until its proper 5G infrastructure was in place and ready to support its customers, the operator decided that its enhanced 4G/LTE network should be branded as a “5G Evolution” network, hence the “5GE” label.

However, no matter what your smartphone tells you, “5GE” is not 5G. The icon that appears in your status bar isn’t magically determined by the iOS or Android operating systems looking at the mobile network your phone is on; it is entirely up to the carrier.

When AT&T pulled this trick in 2019, many people were misled into believing that their 4G/LTE smartphones suddenly gained 5G capabilities. For example, while Apple didn’t release its first 5G device until the iPhone 12 came out in 2020, AT&T customers with an iPhone XS or iPhone XR started seeing the “5GE” icon light up on their devices when iOS 12.2 arrived in early 2019. Owners of the original Samsung Galaxy S10 and Pixel 4 had similar experiences.

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No 4G/LTE smartphone can get 5G capabilities through a software update. It was deceptive marketing by AT&T, plain and simple, and its rivals quickly began calling out the carrier for talking nonsense.

5GE was not well received

The icon indicates 5G E on a mobile phoneAT&T

Sprint filed suit against AT&T, stating that “the significance of AT&T’s fraud cannot be overstated.” Among Sprint’s concerns was that AT&T’s “false advertising” would harm the reputation of real 5G by misleading consumers into believing that 5G is no faster than 4G/LTE.

“Calling its network 5GE doesn’t make it a 5G network,” Sprint’s complaint says, and “instead misleads customers into believing it’s something it’s not.”

To make matters worse, 5GE turned out to be a bit slower than competing 4G/LTE services, which wasn’t surprising given that it’s just masked 4G. However, one might have expected that AT&T’s “upgraded” 4G/LTE network would actually result in some performance improvements.

An Opensignal report from early 2019 confirmed that AT&T customers with “5GE-capable smartphones” did indeed get a better experience than “customers with less-capable smartphones,” but also clarified that those “5GE-capable” devices were not nothing special – they are just smartphones with relatively modern 4G/LTE capabilities.

2019 chart comparing download speeds on 5GE and 4G networks.Opensignal

“AT&T customers with a 5GE-enabled smartphone get similar speeds to other carrier customers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5GE,” the report added.

Although Sprint and AT&T “amicably settled” their lawsuit, it’s clear that Sprint didn’t get everything it asked for. Sprint wanted an injunction that would have barred AT&T from using the “5GE” label or anything similar. However, a source told the Dallas Business Journal, which first reported the settlement in 2019, that AT&T will continue to use 5G Evolution advertising because “our customers love it.”

Only after the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) criticized AT&T in 2020 did the carrier agree to withdraw, at least in part. The NARB found that AT&T’s “claims [would] mislead reasonable consumers into believing that AT&T offers a 5G network,” and while AT&T said it “respectfully disagrees with the reasoning,” it promised to abide by the NARB’s decision.

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In doing so, AT&T stopped advertising “5G Evolution”. However, it never stopped using the 5GE icon on its devices.

So what is 5GE then?

Simply put, 5GE is nothing more than a silly name for 4G LTE Advanced service. These include class-leading features such as carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM. Still, none of that is any different than what Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint already offer customers with the 4G/LTE symbol.

In other words, 5GE is meaningless. In fact, if you have a 5G-capable smartphone on AT&T, you can humorously confirm for yourself that it’s not 5G. Go into your settings and turn off 5G completely, and there’s a chance you’ll see the “5G” or “5G+” icon replaced by “5GE.” It’s not a mistake; 5G is actually turned off on your phone, but of course 5GE is not 5G.

Unfortunately, there are situations where 5GE can actually be faster than true 5G service, but that has more to do with how carriers have built their low-bandwidth 5G networks. Not that 5GE is anything special; it’s just that low-band 5G is hampered by the need to share the airwaves with 4G/LTE signals.

To roll out 5G as quickly and widely as possible, operators have turned to low-band mobile frequencies that already carry 4G/LTE signals. This was made possible by a 5G feature known as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS).

When 5G signals operate on the same frequencies as 4G/LTE signals, they have to yield to the older technology because it doesn’t know how to share. As a result, 5G can only fit into what’s left. Since 5GE is only 4G/LTE, it takes priority over real 5G traffic when the network is congested. However, the same thing happens to Verizon customers whose phones have 4G/LTE.

The bottom line is that when you see “5GE” on your smartphone, you’re on a 4G/LTE network. That’s the same level of service you’d get from 4G on a Verizon or T-Mobile phone; AT&T just uses a different icon.

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What about other symbols of 5G?

The good news is that 5GE is the exception when it comes to the apparently misleading 5G symbols. The other symbols you’ll see as part of the 5G icon on your phone usually mean you’re on a better version of the carrier’s network.

Verizon uses “5GUW” or “5GUWB” to identify its 5G Ultra Wideband network, depending on the device you’re using. This was initially made up exclusively of mmWave cells in a few large urban centres, but the operator has recently expanded this to include its C-band medium spectrum.

AT&T uses “5G+” or “5G Plus” in the same way, although its customers are much less likely to see this icon pop up. AT&T’s mmWave is limited to densely populated places like stadiums and airports, while its mid-band C-band rollout is slower, currently covering only eight cities. AT&T still uses “5GE” to this day, but you’ll only find it if you move away from actual 5G coverage. Maybe AT&T should call it “5G Minus.”

Despite having the widest mid-range 5G network, T-Mobile chose not to adorn its 5G icon. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, your phone will simply say “5G” whether you’re on low-band, mid-band, or high-band mmWave. With T-Mobile, unless you’re in a rural area, there’s a good chance you’re on the company’s Ultra Capacity 5G midband 5G network anyway, and T-Mobile doesn’t feel the need to point that out to its customers.

While some people may find it useful to know when they are using their carrier’s better 5G services, these icons are essentially marketing ploys to divide users into haves and have-nots. The plain old 5G icon is boring, and even if you’re using 5G, it’s low-band 5G, meaning you’re unlikely to get speeds much faster than 4G/LTE.

Either way, as long as your smartphone displays the 5G icon without the “E” at the end, you’re getting the best possible 5G service for your current location.

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