Some AT&T users in the U.S. have recently seen “5G E” appear on the status bar of their existing smartphones, replacing 4G. This move has sparked controversy because AT&T is using updated 4G network technologies to connect these smartphone users, not the new 5G standard.
AT&T describes its 5G E service as follows, “5G Evolution is our first step on the road to 5G. We’re starting by enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network—up to 2x faster than standard LTE.”
At Opensignal, we are not distracted by technology claims or marketing decisions. We simply measure the real-world experience of users to see if one service delivers a better or worse experience than another.
Analyzing Opensignal’s data shows that AT&T users with 5G E-capable smartphones receive a better experience than AT&T users with less capable smartphone models, for example those with an LTE Category below 16. But AT&T users with a 5G E-capable smartphone receive similar speeds to users on other carriers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5G E. The 5G E speeds which AT&T users experience are very much typical 4G speeds and not the step-change improvement which 5G promises.
However, AT&T’s 5G E example highlights the extent to which 4G experiences differ. Perhaps carriers should show a different icon for smartphone users when experiencing the latest 4G technologies like LTE Advanced Pro?
What Opensignal’s data shows is the extent to which LTE, or 4G, networks have improved since LTE’s original launch. Technologies like carrier aggregation — where two or more bands are used to simultaneously connect a user’s smartphone — 256 QAM or 4x4 MIMO, which together are normally called LTE Advanced Pro, offer a much faster experience than the initial version of 4G that was launched back in 2009-2011.
Ironically, AT&T has a real 5G New Radio (5G NR) network live now for mobile hotspot users, and all four U.S. carriers are launching standards-based 5G NR for smartphone users in the coming months. Verizon intends to switch on smartphone users with 5G service on April 11.
As 5G networks arrive during 2019, we will continue to analyze the real-world experience of new technologies to quantify the real-world benefits available to users. With 5G launching across a range of frequency bands — including the extremely high capacity but problematic for reach mmWave bands — real-world, impartial measures of network experience will become even more important.
Opensignal’s analysis here looks at the smartphone models which AT&T displays the 5G E name onto when the model connects to a particular LTE network standard. Opensignal is choosing not to differentiate between the times when 5G E is shown and when it is not, because we wish to compare the 5G E experience with the users connecting to the other US carriers that do not show 5G E but offer the same 4G technologies. In other words, just as 5G E is only available some of the time, so is the equivalent LTE Advanced Pro technologies on the other three networks.