The 5G marketing tussle is just getting started

The 5G marketing tussle is just getting started

As we patiently wait for the transition to 5G to happen, carriers are already scrambling to gain a marketing advantage. In a week which saw AT&T rebrand its LTE network tech as “5G Evolution”, adding 5G E icons to smartphones, the PR scrap has officially begun.

We have written previously about our excitement for the next generation of mobile networking. The speeds and potential that 5G will bring is mouth-watering, but we need to be patient. Providers don't expect 5G on smartphones to play a major role for the normal consumer before 2022. That’s three years too many for some US carriers, which want to cash in on 5G right now.

AT&T was the first to flinch. Its 5G Evolution network is essentially an upgraded LTE network. In fact, it is not even an upgrade that breaks new ground. In the US, T-Mobile and Verizon already have the same tech live in hundreds of markets. Let’s not beat around the bush here, 5G E is pure, unfiltered marketing BS.

5ge 1
Roll up, roll up, get yourself some super-fast "5G E" ladies and gentleman...! / © The Verge

Despite being mocked by its rivals on Twitter, AT&T doubled down on its fake 5G icon. Igal Elbaz, senior vice president for wireless technology at AT&T, told Tom’s Guide that the carrier is being “pretty public” about what 5G E is all about.

He says that the company is trying to do two things. The first is to let AT&T’s customers know that they are in “an enhanced experience market or area”, although he fails to stress that he means enhanced compared to their old AT&T network, not compared to its competition.

His second aim is so laughable, it's worth sharing in full.

“All of our investment in the infrastructure and hardware is all 5G ready, so the moment the 5G software and the 5G devices show up, it's a software upgrade to our network to enable our customers to move to 5G.”

That’s a bit like inviting your friends to come over to test drive your new Ferrari today, because you are only a lifestyle upgrade away from actually owning one!

Verizon also had a pop at AT&T for the stunt, publishing an article titled: 'When we say “5G,” we mean 5G', on its website. Author Kyle Malady called for the industry to maintain its integrity, promising that Verizon will only label something 5G if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities.

Sprint also, unsurprisingly, disapproves of the marketing hype that is brewing here. Dr. John Saw, CTO at Sprint, told Engadget: “AT&T is blatantly misleading consumers - 5GE is not real 5G.”

It's easy for these guys to come out and bash one of their rivals now, of course. We'll have to wait and see how long they can hold off before launching their own 5G marketing campaigns.

We have been down this road before...

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? In fact, one of the reasons we have the term “LTE” is because of the mess we made during the transition from 3G to 4G. When the ITU Radiocommunication Sector, one of the three sectors of the International Telecommunication Union, set its standards for 4G back in 2008, the peak download speeds (100Mbit/s for high mobility devices, such as using your phone in a car or on a train) were basically out of reach. Eventually, the regulating body decided that after all the money and effort pumped into Long-term Evolution (LTE) in pursuit of those standards, it would allow LTE networks to be branded 4G if they offered big improvements over 3G technology. And so, the whole 4G/LTE/LTE Advanced confusion was born.

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Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 855 is 5G ready. / © Qualcomm

With true 5G still years away for most consumers, we’re already getting tangled up with marketing speak and confusion. Tech enthusiasts and those that read sites like this one may be wise to what is going on here, but what about regular consumers?

Are we really going to expect an AT&T customer to see a 5G E icon on their smartphone and know they are being sold a lie? What if your Verizon phone says 4G and your friend's phone says 5G E? Would you be tempted to make the switch?

This whole issue needs to be nipped in the bud right now, before it gets out of hand. I am encouraged by what Malady wrote in his article, but I fear that this 5G marketing circus is only just getting started. AT&T went a bit too early. It's a false start, sure, but that doesn't mean that the race is called off.

What do you think about companies making a play to become the first 5G network? Let us know how things stand in your region.

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  • Albin Foro Jan 12, 2019 Link to comment

    It's all pending serious deployments at scale by the telcos (and firing Huawei and ZTE are likely slowing that down, limiting the companies able to build out the infrastructure). Fingers crossed for the day we terminate cable internet subscriptions and use one 5G wireless provider for everything.

  • storm Jan 12, 2019 Link to comment

    I don't think I'll even be in the market for 5g for two more years, maybe longer. Not worth the premium nor the carrier lock here in the US.