The International Telecommunication Union hasn't yet finalized the 5G standard, having only published its draft specs in February of this year, and doesn't expect to do so until November. But AT&T is hoping to dazzle its less tech-savvy customers by announcing the rollout of its new "5G Evolution" connections.
5G Evolution is, as it sounds, a completely meaningless marketing term. The carrier said today that its 5G Evolution speeds will be "achieved through upgrades like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and more". But those named improvements are part of existing 4G LTE-A and LTE-A Pro standards, which carriers like T-Mobile have been using for months, without the pretense of associating those upgrades with 5G.
AT&T is evidently fully aware of the vacuousness of its announcement. "We continue to lay the foundation for our evolution to 5G while the 5G standards are being finalized," it acknowledged, although it glossed over the fact that this is still 4G technology with a 5G sticker slapped on top of it.
AT&T says that these "faster 5G Evolution speeds" will be available from today "in select areas of Austin", but only for those customers who own Samsung's new Galaxy S8 or S8+ flagships. The reference to those specific handsets might be a hint that AT&T is using LTE-U technology - given that the Galaxy S8 handsets are the first to ship with LTE-U support - but that's still a long way from 5G, despite AT&T's claims that it will deliver "twice the speeds of our 4G LTE network".
Back in 2010, T-Mobile was widely mocked for branding its HSPA+ network as "4G", before LTE networks went live in the US. In 2012, AT&T convinced Apple to change the network signal indicator to read "4G" on iPhones that didn't actually have 4G LTE radios. Now that AT&T has decided to try to gain a marketing advantage over its rivals by claiming that it's built some kind of imaginary bridge to 5G, which its customers can start using right now, it seems only a matter of time before other US carriers feel compelled to do the same - although T-Mo might be sitting this one out...