Over the last few years, cellular companies far and wide have been busily integrating the latest in 5G technology into their networks.
That’s good news, as 5G networks enable an array of new features, including download speeds up to 20 Gbps.
That’s about 100 times faster than the previous cellular standard, 4G. Plus, 5G networks offer much lower transmission latency, which makes it ideal for applications like cloud-powered VR and supporting things like autonomous vehicles.
However, the rollout so far isn’t proceeding as smoothly as end users may have hoped.
If you ask anybody old enough to remember the rollout of 4G networks, they’d tell you that this all feels very familiar.
Back then, the cellular companies raced to be the first to claim a true 4G network, even when none existed.
As a result, devices started cropping up all over with various letters, symbols, and numbers appended to 4G to denote the myriad network upgrade approaches the carriers had taken.
Cut to today, and it’s all happening again. If you own an allegedly 5G device right now, there’s a good chance it’s got a confusing connection indicator just like its 4G ancestors once did.
Three of the most common 5G network designators you might see are 5G UC, 5G UW, and 5G E.
But what do they mean? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Does 5G UC Mean on My Phone?
If you have a device that’s displaying a 5G UC indicator, it means you’re connected to a part of T-Mobile’s 5G network.
The UC stands for “Ultra Capacity” and indicates that your device is using either a mid-band or millimeter wave (mmWave or High-Band) network connection.
The good news is that this indicator means you can expect true 5G performance with low latency and high data throughput.
However, there’s a wide variance between what you can expect from a mid-band 5G connection versus a mmWave one.
Mid-band 5G connections use frequencies below 6 GHz. For this type of connection, T-Mobile uses the 2.5 GHz spectrum.
It works reasonably well at long distances from a cellular tower and provides between 100 and 900 Mbps of data throughput, depending on network and environmental conditions.
A mmWave spectrum, by contrast, typically uses frequencies between 24 and 300 GHz.
In T-Mobile’s case, the specific mmWave frequencies in use are 28 GHz and 39 GHz.
As a result, mmWave connections don’t work at long ranges and may have trouble penetrating obstructions like hills, mountains, and walls.
However, it’s the only flavor of 5G that can deliver anywhere near the maximum theoretical bandwidth promised by the 5G network specification.
The thing to remember is, however, that you’re only likely to find mmWave cellular sites in dense urban areas or places like sports arenas and concert venues.
Therefore, when your device displays a 5G UC indicator, it will mean you’re connected to T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G network in most cases.
What Does 5G UW Mean on My Phone?
If your device displays 5G UW, it’s telling you that you’re connected to Verizon’s 5G network.
In this case, the UW stands for “Ultra Wideband“. In practice, Verizon’s 5G UW is almost indistinguishable from T-Mobile’s 5G UC.
The former also means you’re connected to Verizon’s network using mid-band or mmWave frequencies. As such, you can expect similar performance.
For its mid-band connections, Verizon uses the 3.7 GHz part of the spectrum. It also works well at range and delivers download speeds ranging from 100 Mbps and 900 Mbps.
However, Verizon began rolling out its 5G mid-band network months after T-Mobile and is still working to improve its average throughput speeds on its mid-band 5G network.
On the other hand, Verizon owns the largest share of the mmWave spectrum in the US and was an early advocate for mmWave 5G technology.
They also use the 28 GHz and 39 GHz frequencies for their mmWave 5G network. The difference is that you’ll find far more locations with mmWave 5G coverage when you’re using Verizon’s network.
Plus, as the biggest owner of the mmWave spectrum, it’s reasonable to expect that their lead in the rollout of the technology will only continue to grow.
Despite that, though, you’re still more likely to see a 5G UW indicator on your device when you’re connected to Verizon’s network via a mid-band frequency.
What Does 5G E Mean on My Phone?
Among the 5G indicators you may now see on current-generation devices, the 5G E indicator is the only one that should give you pause.
That’s because it doesn’t mean you’re connected to a 5G network, full stop. It’s actually AT&T’s rebranded name for its preexisting 4G LTE-A network.
Confusingly, connections to AT&T’s real 5G network will show up on a device with a simple 5G symbol. But the confusion seems like the point.
In multiple interviews on the subject, representatives for AT&T claimed that they rolled out the 5G E indicators to let users know they were in a coverage zone that would soon get true 5G coverage.
However, the indicators popped up first on 4G handsets, which are incapable of connecting to AT&T’s real 5G network where it exists.
Fortunately, AT&T agreed to stop using the term 5G E or 5G Evolution in its advertising content back in 2020. However, they didn’t stop using it on the devices connected to their network.
The real trouble is that AT&T fell behind its peers in rolling out a true 5G network. As a result, both its mid-band and mmWave 5G networks are still vastly smaller than either T-Mobile’s or Verizon’s.
Plus, its 4G-only devices are still displaying the 5G E symbol but won’t likely see any real-world benefits from the so-called upgrade.
Comparison of 5G UC vs 5G UW
From a technical point of view, there’s very little difference between T-Mobile’s 5G UC network and Verizon’s 5G UW network.
They both rely on the same frequency for mmWave transmission and similar wavelengths for mid-band transmission.
If anything, T-Mobile’s lower-frequency mid-band, which broadcasts at 2.5 GHz, may do a slightly better job at penetrating walls and other obstructions than Verizon’s 3.7 GHz mid-band network.
That could give T-Mobile an advantage in far-flung rural areas. However, the difference may be so slight that it might not translate into a meaningful performance advantage in the real world.
However, it’s worth reiterating that you might see a huge difference in performance between T-Mobile’s 5G UC and Verizon’s 5g UW, depending on where you are.
For example, people who spend the bulk of their time in dense urban areas are far more likely to get a mmWave 5G signal if they’re using Verizon’s 5G UW network.
At the time of this writing, Verizon had the most extensive mmWave coverage in major cities.
However, T-Mobile’s 5G UC network boasts the most extensive reach of all 5G networks in the US right now.
It reaches an estimated 300 million people with its 5G UC infrastructure, which is still over 60 million more people than Verizon can claim.
Plus, T-Mobile is working daily to expand its mmWave network in major cities and may cut into Verizon’s lead in that area soon.
5G Low Band – Mid Band – High Band (mmWave)
Some important characteristics to have in mind about the various 5G frequency bands are presented in the table below.
|5G Low Band||5G Mid Band||5G mmWave|
|Frequency Spectrum||600-700MHz||2 – 6 GHz||Above 24GHz|
|Speed Range||30-200 Mbps||100-900 Mbps||Around 1.6 Gbps (source)|
The Bottom Line
Now that you know the difference between 5G UC, 5G UW, and 5G E, you can use the knowledge to get the best 5G experience available in your area.
With any luck, the major carriers won’t introduce any further confusing nomenclature as their 5G networks continue to expand and evolve.
Remember, however, that all 5G networks aren’t equal, and that will likely always be true. So, remember that the ancient Latin phrase of caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—very much still applies in the age of 5G.