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AT&T ‘5G Evolution’ Network in Indianapolis Not Actually 5G

AT&T today launched gigabit LTE in parts of Indianapolis and Austin, a good thing the company insists on ruining by misleadingly calling it "5G Evolution."

Let's start with the good news. AT&T's network performance has gotten a lot better over the past year, with the nation's second-largest carrier winning a third of the cities in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests in May. It's committed to launching gigabit LTE, which combines three different technologies to get real-life peak speeds as high as 400Mbps, in 20 cities by the end of the year. It's already working on LAA, a technology that takes over unused Wi-Fi channels to speed up cell phones.

Then it goes and screws it all up by calling it "5G Evolution." This isn't 5G; it's the next upgrade to LTE, the same technology the three other carriers are installing.

"We're on the path of developing the capabilities that head us towards the 5G target speed," said Hank Kafka, AT&T's VP of access, architecture, and devices. "The equipment follows LTE standards and capabilities but is built towards heading for 5G speeds and capabilities."

They're on the path, but they aren't actually at 5G yet; nobody is. AT&T is currently trying out pre-5G home internet systems, but other than trials, "we haven't announced what else we may or may not do with it," Kafka said. The company's focus is on pushing the real 5G radio standard, known as 5G NR, as fast as it can; that may result in true 5G by "the end of 2018," Kafka said.

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The naming is important here because 5G NR will require new devices and radios, and because it's supposed to have a transformational effect on the way we use mobile networks. That's not true of "5G Evolution." AT&T's naming scheme also creates a false sense of difference between AT&T's network and the other carriers' similar technologies, which is probably AT&T's intent.

That's a pity, because if AT&T's network shows the kind of performance we saw in our drive tests, the company has no need to mislead. During our Fastest Mobile Networks drive tests, the "5G Evolution" network wasn't fully baked yet. But AT&T still won Indianapolis, and showed the potential for peak speeds to rocket up to 196Mbps—some of the fastest real-life speeds we saw in the country.

If you want to hit those peak speeds for now, by the way, you need a Galaxy S8 or S8+ phone, as those are the only devices which can combine 256QAM, 4×4 MIMO, and 3x carrier aggregation, the three technologies that form the core of gigabit LTE. More devices will come later this year, AT&T says.

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