Why it matters to you
The race to 5G has officially kicked off — well, depending on what your definition of 5G is. On Tuesday, AT&T announced it has switched on its 5G Evolution service in Austin, Texas, and Samsung Galaxy S8 users can start experiencing the improved service right now.
AT&T claims its 5G Evolution spec is twice as fast as its current 4G LTE network, which OpenSignal rated at about 14Mbps on average in February. The Galaxy S8 series can take advantage because it uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset, which supports data transfers at up to gigabit speed.
However, calling the service 5G is a bit misleading. The 5G standard has not been finalized yet and, while AT&T claims this Evolution network will lay the foundation for its future infrastructure, the technology isn’t necessarily cutting edge anymore. According to AT&T, 5G Evolution utilizes carrier aggregation, 4×4 Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) and 256 Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) to deliver faster data speeds — the same enhancements T-Mobile brought to its existing LTE network all the way back in September.
In other words, what AT&T is calling 5G Evolution is indeed an upgrade over existing LTE, but it is not even close to what true 5G is purported to offer when it arrives a few years from now. While much will likely change between now and then as to what officially constitutes 5G, one feature it will certainly bring is data speeds of at least 1Gbps. What AT&T is introducing now cannot even manage half that.
Again, it is still faster, but it is not 5G. In fact, it is a lot like how AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were marketing technologies like HSPA+ and WiMax — iterations upon the 3G standard — as 4G, well before LTE was ever introduced. Never mind the fact that LTE still does not reach the initial agreed-upon standard for 4G.
While AT&T customers in Austin will be the first to receive 5G Evolution, the carrier says it expects to roll the service out to cities including Indianapolis, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Nashville, Tennessee next. By then, it is possible another phone featuring the Snapdragon 835, or an even more powerful system-on-chip with support for faster data speeds, will also launch to take advantage of AT&T’s improvements.