Real 5G networks and devices won’t be available until early 2019, according to most analysts, but that isn’t going to stop wireless companies from jostling to position themselves as the most technologically advanced and up-to-date. Putting a marketing spin on wireless tech is absolutely nothing new, but what AT&T is doing with its “5G Evolution” is just plain bad.
5G Evolution is AT&T’s name for certain LTE-Advanced technology, which means it’s actually part of the 4G framework, not 5G. Everyone pointed this out when AT&T breathlessly announced 5G Evolution this time last year, but now AT&T is doubling down on the fairytale, announcing that it’s launching 5G Evolution in parts of 117 new markets today, bringing the total number of places where 5G Evolution is available to 141.
AT&T is not alone in rolling out the LTE-Advanced features to real-world networks. LTE-Advanced consists of a couple of technologies which, when combined, deliver impressive speed and capacity upgrades. Carrier aggregation is the first, a technology that’s not really new to the scene. All four carriers have been using some form of CA for years; it combines multiple chunks of LTE spectrum across different frequencies to allow handsets to download data from multiple LTE bands simultaneously. 2CA, aggregating two carriers together, is already in widespread use, but modern phones (especially Android flagships using Qualcomm’s X16 modem) are capable of using four carriers at the same time.
Multiple input multiple output (MIMO) is another new-but-rare technology AT&T is pushing out. It increases the overall bitrate available by combining data streams from multiple antennas, and partners well with carrier aggregation. If carrier aggregation is like adding extra lanes to a highway, MIMO is like stacking a whole new highway on top. 256 QAM is the final piece of the LTE-Advanced puzzle, allowing networks to encode more data by using multiple unique waveform shapes.
Taken together, carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM allow for download speeds of up to 400Mbps, although you’ll have to have a compatible phone to take advantage of the higher speeds. No iPhone has the category 16 LTE modem necessary to take full advantage of the features, so only people with a recent Android flagship can see the benefits.