Can your phone be upgraded to 5G?


(wow that was a short article.)

Seriously, though. If a phone isn’t designed for 5G it’s not going to work with 5G. Phones are packed with technology and for the most part, you can’t take one chip out and put another one in. It would take a new radio chip and a new antenna to make a phone ready for 5G. It might also take a processor upgrade.

So what about 5G-E then?

If you have a newer AT&T phone, you might have noticed that your phone’s network indicator, which used to say LTE, now says 5G-E. You might think this is concrete proof that your old pal Stuart is wrong about this sort of thing. Unfortunately I have to disappoint you… I’m not wrong.

AT&T made a lot of waves recently when they finally rolled out what they call “5G Evolution.” You’re using that technology if you see this on your phone:

5G Evolution is a mix of three technologies designed to make your data speeds faster. Three-way carrier aggregation, 256QAM, and 4x4MIMO come together to give your phone a big speed boost. I know that a lot of people are complaining that it’s not “real” 5G. I admit, it isn’t. But hey, if I can get real, consistent 75 megabits per second on my phone, while I’m in the middle of nowhere, I don’t care what they call it.

If your phone already had this hardware, then the indicator changed from LTE to 5G-E when the local towers were ready to use the new technology. If you don’t have a newer phone with this hardware, you’ll never see that 5G-E icon on it.

When will we see real 5G phones?

AT&T and others have started to roll out 600MHz 5G in select cities. This is the first level of 5G and realistically it won’t be any faster than “5G-E.” But it will be real 5G. Samsung is expected to have a 5G phone by the end of this year, but it could be next year or later for Apple. They’ve always lagged behind in the data speed wars, honestly. Even the first iPhone used EDGE technology when everyone else was using 3G. EDGE, in case you don’t remember, was sort of a “fake 3G” that used 2G technology to get the fastest speeds possible at that time. So, if you think about it, not a lot has changed.

5G phones will still work in LTE mode when you’re not in a city that supports 5G. In order for a city to support 5G, two things need to happen. First, television stations in the area have to give up the frequencies that are going to be used for 5G. This means channels 37 through 51. Second, the carrier needs to put 5G hardware on the towers. There’s every reason to think this is happening now. AT&T is in the middle of a massive upgrade so they can provide FirstNet service to over 99% of the population. They’re probably putting 5G hardware up, at least in those cities that are nearly ready for it.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.