AT&T appears to have shifted into full defense mode following a row of trolling from all other top competitors in the country over its use of a "5G E" icon in the status bar of some phones on its network. Speaking in a recent interview with Tom's Guide, AT&T senior vice president for wireless technology Igal Elbaz pointed out that the term is short for 5G Evolution and that the carrier has been open about the update for some time. The executive isn't wrong on that point since AT&T first started talking up and unrolling the updated 4G LTE network back in 2017, beginning with no fewer than 20 metropolitan areas. Over the interceding year, the company has also released several key announcements and information highlighting that the technology is technically a stepping stone from 4G LTE to 5G. Mr. Elbaz reiterated that point by stating that the new icon appearing in some the status bar of some users' mobile phones is only intended to clue them into an improvement in their experience on the network.
It's 5G, except it isn't
AT&T has faced substantial blowback from its decision to change its LTE icon via a software update and a significant amount of that is stemming from its top competitors. That's because, as pointed out in the backlash, 5G E simply isn't 5G at all. The network improvements do deliver reduced latency and upgraded speeds but by most estimates and prior tests, true 5G will perform with monumentally reduced latency and with exponentially better speeds. 4G LTE and AT&T's 5G Evolution perform at speeds that are measured at below 100Mbps speeds. When 5G arrives in full force, it is expected to perform at rates measured in gigabits per second (Gbps) with one of those units of measurement equaling 1000Mbps. Analysis from HighSpeedInternet.com has indicated that Verizon's 5G may be able to perform at around 3.77Gbps — that's around 3,770Mbps compared to current speeds listed above.
Each of the companies has previously been called out before for incorrectly or dishonestly marketing small improvements to networking technology as next-generation advancements, so AT&T isn't alone in the practice. But it may just be that at least three of the top four US carriers has learned a valuable lesson in both how to and how not to market updates. The now-familiar use of a number followed by the letter "G" is ubiquitously understood to represent a generational leap and stepping the number forward in sequence out of order doesn't generally sit well with users or industry leaders. That's because, regardless of how much AT&T clarifies its new icon or how it justifies its use of 5G E as a marketing term, not everybody is going to get the memo. As noted by Verizon in its comments on the matter, any reference to 5G is going to lead at least a portion of users to believe they actually have 5G access. That portion, effectively equal to the number of consumers who don't keep up on tech news or pay attention during AT&T's advertising, could very easily mistake the change for something it isn't.
In defense of giving 5G a bad name
The generation gap between AT&T's 5G Evolution and true 5G is wide enough that the misunderstanding could feasibly give 5G a bad reputation or lead to indifference about it because of ensuing misconceptions. Summarily, it could lead to a considerable swath of the US consumer base thinking that 5G is genuinely a minuscule incremental update that won't necessarily offer big benefits across the technology world at large. That could result in diminished interest in 5G smartphones when those begin to arrive on the market this year. It's clear that AT&T isn't at all unsubstantiated in its claim that its long-term advertising should be sufficient to ensure that there's no confusion. The mobile provider might similarly be justified in its attempt to alert users that some incoming change has improved their experience. But the implications of choosing to use the term 5G over something more straightforward could negatively impact the mobile industry anyway.