Louise Matsakis

February 20, 2019

SOME AT&T CUSTOMERS noticed a strange phenomenon earlier this year. The upper left corner of their smartphones began displaying “5GE,” ostensibly indicating their phones were using 5G technology. And while Samsung announced Wednesday that it will soon release a 5G-compatible phone, actual 5G networks in the US are still in their nascent stages.

AT&T is engaging in a marketing ploy—one it has used in the past. The 5GE symbol really means a phone is using advanced LTE technology, which is available on other carriers and is slower than the 10-gigabyte speeds 5G promises. When the company introduces actual 5G tech, it plans to call it 5G+ instead. Sprint is suing AT&T over the nomenclature, alleging it constitutes deceptive advertising.

Even beyond 5GE, there’s a lot of confusion about what the letters, bars, and other symbols on your phone actually mean. Experts say interpreting them may only become more complicated as 5G rolls out in the coming years. It’s not entirely the fault of carriers—many factors can impact a wireless signal, which are difficult to convey with a few characters at the top of a screen.

What the Symbols Represent

Terms like 3G, 4G, and LTE refer to subsequent generations of wireless technology, which began with 1G in the late 1970s. In most parts of the world, LTE and 4G are synonymous—they refer to the same group of technologies that emerged nearly a decade ago and provide speeds around 10 times faster than their 3G predecessors. But in the US, 4G corresponds to HSPA+, which is technically still a 3G innovation. “The distinction between 4G and LTE is a purely American one. In every other country there’s no difference,” says Brendan Gill, CEO of OpenSignal, a company that collects independent data on carrier signal quality.

These regional differences exist, in part, because while organizations like the International Telecommunication Union and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) help define the standards, they don’t regulate how labels like 4G are used. “As a technical organization, ITU does not have the mandate to intervene in Member States’ domestic issues or private companies’ matters, including labelling technology for term[s] for marketing purposes,” Fernando Neda, a spokesperson for ITU, said in a statement. 3GPP declined to comment.

HSPA+ is better than plain old 3G, but it doesn’t meet the technical standard for “true” 4G. That’s why you may notice slower download speeds on an American 4G network than on an LTE one. You might also fail to detect any difference between a 4G network in the US and what’s called a 3G one overseas. In short, HSPA+ can be thought of as 3.5G—not quite a new generation, but certainly an upgrade. Americans just like to round up.

AT&T is doing something similar with its so-called 5GE service. Since LTE was first introduced, carriers have added a number of enhancements to make their wireless services faster and smoother. Downloading apps and watching high-resolution videos take far less time than they did only a couple years ago. But AT&T—or any carrier, for that matter—has yet to create a network that meets the fifth-generation standards agreed upon by technical organizations. For one, AT&T’s 5GE service doesn’t use high-frequency millimeter waves, the band of spectrum associated with 5G technology. “It is something different there,” says Gill. “But it’s not typically what is being referred to as the next generation.”

The 5GE icon therefore represents something more like 4.5G—certainly better than 4G, but not yet really 5G. In the US, you can think of LTE and 5GE as the same thing. “These are all just different labels, and ultimately what matters is not whether your phone says 4G, 5G, or 5GE, it’s what experience you actually get,” Gill says.

Even if you’re on a fast LTE network, your phone might still sometimes move at a snail’s pace. That lethargy could be the result of congestion in the network, which is caused by too many phones trying to connect at the same time. This can happen during the morning or evening commute in a big city, or during a concert or sporting event where lots of people are crowded into the same area, for example. These issues can also be more permanent if there’s inadequate coverage in a specific area. That might be the reason, for instance, why you always fail to find service in a particular part of town.

Strength vs. Quality

In addition to the network you’re using, the strength and quality of your wireless signal also affects performance. But the “bars” in the top left corner of your screen refer solely to signal strength. And it turns out that quality—what’s known as the signal-to-noise ratio—has a bigger effect on a user’s experience. This is why you can have four or five bars and still get crappy service—the signal is strong, but it’s messed up.

To make matters more confusing, there’s no standard definition for what constitutes high or low signal strength. Each device manufacturer calculates signal strength in its own way. In 2010, Apple even admitted it had made a mistake in its formula for calculating signal strength on the iPhone 4. “It’s not as simple as four out of five bars is some absolute standard that you know where you stand,” says Gill. In other words, just because your friend’s phone has more bars doesn’t mean they will have an easier time placing a call or sending a text than you will.

The Role Hardware Plays

The type of phone you have, as well as what mobile chip it uses, can also impact the quality of your wireless service.

“There are huge differences across devices; it’s staggering. That’s definitely true at a high level,” says Michael Thelander, the president of Signals Research Group, which studies the wireless telecommunications industry. While the latest smartphones tend to come with the most advanced antennas and modems, some models—packed with fancy features like bigger batteries and cameras—compromise when it comes to signal performance. At the same time, OpenSignal has found that the latest iPhone models have faster download speeds than their predecessors, for instance, but if excellent coverage is your main priority, you don’t necessarily need the most sophisticated smartphone.

In controlled tests, Signals Research Group has found that cheaper smartphones sometimes do better. The winner of one was “literally a phone I bought at Walmart. The $200 smartphone turned out to be the best-performing phone,” says Thelander.

So the next time you’re shopping for a new smartphone, it’s worth comparing the wireless capabilities of different models. If in the past you’ve only considered, say, battery life and camera quality, you can forgive yourself. Thelander says he’s noticed wireless performance is often ignored in both editorial smartphone reviews and in advertising. “They don’t mention that the phone is a phone,” he says.

More Confusion to Come

As they begin planning for 5G, some carriers want to change current technical standards so more information can be shown in the top corner of your screen, says Thelander. They want to do this by increasing the number of data bits that communicate when icons like 4G or LTE should be displayed. More data bits would allow carriers to differentiate between, say, a more reliable signal and one that provides higher download speeds. Hypothetically, we could start seeing icons like 5GR, for reliable, or 5GF, for fast.

There’s one additional factor that could make 5G even more confusing for consumers. In order to introduce the new technology faster, carriers in the US are going to be combining 5G with existing 4G infrastructure. The line between an LTE and a 5G connection will be inherently blurry in some cases, and it’s not yet clear where every carrier will draw it. “It’s not just 5G or 4G, it’s both together,” says Thelander. So even when the next generation of mobile tech arrives, the symbols on your phone will continue to elide the full story of what’s happening with your signal.