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AT&T announces it will build a fake 5G network

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Playing catch-up and calling it progress

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AT&T made waves today when it announced plans to launch a “5G Evolution” network in over 20 cities by the end of this year. According to the press release, customers with a Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus will be able to take advantage of a “5G Evolution” connection at “twice the speeds of [AT&T’s] 4G LTE network.”

And yes, what AT&T is referring to as “5G Evolution” may be faster than its current 4G networks, but calling it 5G is a meaningless marketing move designed to confuse customers and make AT&T seem like it has a technological leg up on the cutting edge of wireless technology. It is, plainly speaking, bullshit.

First and foremost, 5G technology mostly doesn’t exist yet. Standards organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the 3GPP have yet to release standards for 5G. That said, 5G technology is widely expected to use millimeter wave (mmWave) band transmission, a wholly different technology from current LTE networks that would use entirely different bands of frequency and new types of antennas.

The tech AT&T says it’s using is distinctly not what’s considered 5G. The press release references using 4x4 MIMO antennas and 256 QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) to reach those speeds. In other words, AT&T is simply taking advantage of technologies from the existing LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro standards like MIMO (multiple antennas) technology and carrier aggregation to deliver a faster connection. Which would be a lot more impressive if T-Mobile hadn’t already been using exactly those methods to reach faster LTE speeds on its network since last September.

It’s possible that AT&T may be using other methods as well, given that it only touts the increased speeds for the S8 and S8 Plus, even though other phones, including last year’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge both feature 4x4 MIMO antennas and 256 QAM tuners. But if AT&T is taking advantage of things that only the S8 supports, like LTE-U (which uses unused frequency in the 5 GHz band typically used by Wi-Fi routers for LTE service) it hasn’t said — although that still wouldn’t be 5G.

AT&T’s is careful to only refer to the new service as “5G Evolution,” describing it as part of a “foundation for our evolution to 5G while the 5G standards are being finalized.” But ultimately, it’s branding that serves to mask the fact that AT&T is just rolling out network technology that its competitors have been using for months, while confusing consumers into believing that its at head of the pack.

This isn’t the first time that carrier marketing expectations have screwed things up like this before, either. AT&T and T-Mobile both are guilty of the same sin back when both companies branded 3G’s enhanced HSPA+ speeds as “4G” — with AT&T even going as far as forcing Apple to display HSPA+ as 4G on the iPhone 4S with a software update. And even LTE itself doesn’t meet the agreed upon standards for 4G speeds according to standards organizations, which only grudgingly allowed LTE to be called “4G” after years of carrier marketing deciding it as such.

5G Evolution isn’t 5G, just faster 4G LTE speeds, regardless of what AT&T says. But even worse, now that AT&T has opened the Pandora’s box of 5G branding, the other carriers probably won’t be far behind in adopting it, which will only lead to more confusion as we go forward.