AT&T's '5G Evolution' network isn't a brand (new) problem

 

AT&T told us it would be rolling out its 5G lie back in February. At the time, no one cared. Here’s why we still shouldn’t care.

In February, AT&T announced that it would launch something called a 5G Evolution network in Austin later in the year. At the time, no one paid the announcement much attention because it was filtered in with a larger, seemingly more-important pronouncement: that AT&T was moving towards real 5G trials, also in Austin where it has extensive research facilities. With the impending hardening of the official 5G standard, America’s second-biggest wireless carrier was on its way towards an honest-to-goodness leg up in the next generation of wireless.

Moving from LTE to 5G is like going from 1080p to 4K — it’s a big difference, but you need the right equipment to see it.

Last week, AT&T launched said 5G Evolution network in Austin, and the world, including us, took umbrage at the naming convention. But we should have seen this coming — AT&T made it plain three months ago that it would be adulterating the idea of 5G for its own branding advantages. At the core of the disdain towards AT&T was the apparent flagrancy of its convention-breaking, the idea that what the industry, or a standards body, decides is 3G or 4G or 5G must be followed to the letter by the companies that famously make billions of dollars each year distorting or exaggerating the truth. (AT&T has defended its use of the 5G Evolution name, telling FierceWireless that “AT&T’s 5G Evolution lays the foundation for 5G while the standards are being finalized.”)

When I first read that AT&T was launching a 5G Evolution network, I got just as worked up as everyone else (though I didn’t swear in my title). I said the company was ruining 5G for the rest of the industry, an admittedly hyperbolic refrain that now, days later, I regret. AT&T hasn’t ruined 5G because 5G isn’t ruinable. It’s not a thing yet. 5G is a mishmash of ideas and best practices and existing technologies, buoyed by dozens — likely hundreds — of organizations each with a vested interest of advancing their minor constituent towards the center of the enormous game board. To further the board game analogy, the main problem with the ruthless advancement of 5G is that no one is waiting their turn to play; everyone is merely using the resources at hand to advance their pieces as quickly as possible.

It’s within this climate that AT&T decided to make the first public move, and stood to face the most ire as a result. But here’s the thing to note about this unilateral move: it’s really not a big deal. And even though, in principle, AT&T probably shouldn’t mislead customers by calling what is clearly still a 4G LTE-based network ‘5G Evolution’, it’s not nearly as objectionable as when, back in 2011, AT&T balked at Verizon’s early launch of true 4G LTE and renamed its decidedly third-generation network ‘4G’.

5G promises to be a big upgrade over 4G LTE, but it’s also a much more complex beast to tackle.

But as the difference between 720p and 1080p was enormous, and the advantages obvious to the naked eye, so too was the variation in speed between “faux-G” and real 4G, which was, as it is today, based on the LTE standard. AT&T and T-Mobile, doubling down on HSPA+ and DC-HSPA, which were certainly improvements over existing 3G speeds, especially for downloads, began referring to their networks as 4G-capable so it didn’t fall behind what was a yawning technological divide between Verizon at the time. Sprint, with its doomed WiMAX standard, did the same, much to its detriment.

But 4G LTE isn’t just faster than 3G in terms of speed; it’s more efficient, with the ability to push more megabits over much narrower airwaves; and it offers considerably lower latency, which is becoming increasingly important as the mobile web transitions to consuming more video than anything else.

5G promises to be a big upgrade over 4G LTE, but it’s also a much more complex beast to tackle. It’s more like moving from 1080p to 4K — better, but you need a much bigger TV to see the difference.

Part of the 5G standard uses very high-frequency airwaves that approach the same signals used by microwaves, which hold enormous capacity for throughput but due to physics can’t travel long distances. On the other side of the spectrum (literally), 5G plans to achieve sub-one millisecond response times for mission-critical services, and be the vehicle for the Internet of Things products to send billions of tiny packets to one another so that everything, not just phones and lightbulbs, are somehow connected to the Internet. It’s a huge, daunting and potentially society-changing project, but even when the first stages of the new standard begin to show up in consumer products in the last year of this decade, it will still be many years until 5G takes on its final form, just as LTE has taken the better part of this decade to reach maturity.

At the same time, though, the average smartphone user isn’t going to see massive advantages in terms of wireless speed, latency and coverage when those first 5G-compatible phones roll off the line sometime in 2019 or 2020. Part of Qualcomm’s recent marketing push is to explain that gigabit LTE, which can be achieved using its X16 solution found inside the Snapdragon 835 (which is only in the Galaxy S8 right now), lays the foundations for 5G because it incorporates the same fundamental OFDM-based technologies that will eventually migrate to the next generation: MIMO, carrier aggregation, 256QAM (and higher) and the use of unlicensed spectrum. AT&T tells us that its 5G Evolution network uses all of these things; T-Mobile has been using them since September of 2016.

But regardless of what you call these achievements — LTE Advanced Pro, 5G Evolution, 7G Eventual — it’s unlikely to completely change your life and blow your mind the way that moving from “faux G” to real 4G did a few years ago.

In the meantime, you can make fun of AT&T for jumping the gun, but really — and unfortunately — if it didn’t do it, another company was going to.

A few more notes from this week:

  • The more time I spend with the Samsung Galaxy S8, the more its flaws are revealed to me, and the less I care. This is one solid phone, quirks and all.
  • Good to see Samsung not waiting for the carriers to roll out emergency fixes for its latest phone. More of this, please.
  • It was interesting watching and reading Phil’s take on the S8, since he’s no longer inundated with new phone releases like he used to be. I agree with some of his points, but I do think the S8 stands on its own, and would have made just as much of an impact had the Note 7 stayed on store shelves.
  • Our most popular post last week was, unsurprisingly, Andrew’s essay on how it’s still stupidly difficult to buy a Google Pixel. It’s a vivid retelling of a very poorly-planned product launch. Not only does the Pixel XL now feel comically oversized next to the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, but I know more than a few people who forwent buying one after waiting for stock replenish, finally giving up and buying an S8.
  • You’ll be seeing more about the BlackBerry KEYone this week, and I’m excited to say that, even though a hardware keyboard isn’t really for me — at least not as my main device — the phone is solid, well-designed, and pretty damn fun to use.

That’s it for now! See y’all on the flippity-flip.

-Daniel

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