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AT&T Mobility chief: Don't get too excited about superfast 5G wireless yet

In response to Verizon's plans to move to 5G, AT&T's Glenn Lurie says he prefers to wait until the industry can agree on what the technology will look like before making any proclamations.

AT&T Mobility CEO Glenn Lurie believes we should hold off before talking up 5G wireless technology. Claudia Cruz/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- AT&T is not impressed with 5G wireless technology. At least, not this soon.

Verizon last week made waves when it said it would conduct field tests using 5G technology next year and committed to . That timeline is significantly ahead of the 2020 time frame that many in the industry believe will mark the beginning of broader adoption of 5G, which could bring dramatically higher speeds to consumers.

But AT&T wants to pump the brakes on any excitement.

"We're not at a point to be making promises or commitments to customers as to what 5G is," Glenn Lurie, chief executive of AT&T Mobility, said in an interview at the CTIA Wireless industry trade show last week. "We as an industry have been really good at overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to new technology."

The comments come amid an intensifying battle over the perception of wireless network superiority, a key weapon for preserving customer loyalty or picking off subscribers from rivals. Verizon is looking to push the technology for faster wireless technology and better coverage. But AT&T, which has made strides catching up to Verizon with its 4G coverage, believes that it's too early to talk publicly about the technology.

AT&T's contention is that the technology behind 5G is still in its infancy and is in such an early stage that no one can agree on what it will look like. Without defined industry standards to which everyone can adhere, it would premature to talk about the potential benefits.

"Let's make sure that before we start hyping what it's going to be, that those standards are agreed to," Lurie said.

Verizon defended its announcement and touted the coalition of equipment vendors and industry players it has created to help it move to 5G.

"Innovation happens when you're willing to look at things a little differently than others, and you're willing to put in the hard work to make your vision a reality," said a Verizon spokesman.

Many carriers are working on various tests of 5G technology, Lurie said, although he declined to comment on whether AT&T was one of them. He added that AT&T was working with the industry to figure out a standard for the technology.

An example of Ericsson's "5G device" (the machine on the left) potentially powering a trash-picking robot. Roger Cheng/CNET

It's a bit of rerun from the last advent of new wireless technology. In 2008, Verizon was the first in the US to lead the charge to the variant of 4G technology called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, and it launched its service to consumers two years later. At the time, AT&T also downplayed the immediate benefits of 4G, noting that early devices would be clunky and would quickly run through their batteries.

Eventually, the move to 4G LTE by both Verizon and AT&T helped drive a jump in mobility, ushering in the rise of sophisticated smartphones and mobile programs and services that are now integral to our lives (think video chat or even selfies).

The hope is that 5G, which will bring speeds that are higher than what Google Fiber offers through a superfast landline connection, will usher in a new revolution. It was a popular topic for folks attending the US-centric CTIA wireless conference last week.

With 5G, a copy of the movie "The Guardians of the Galaxy" would zip to your device in 15 seconds instead of 6 minutes via 4G. The chief digital officer of apparel maker Under Armour, Robin Thurston, said last week that 5G responsiveness would enable sensors in high-tech clothing and accessories to relay real-time vital stats of a player in the middle of a game to the coaches, something that Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is too slow to accomplish.

Verizon isn't going it alone. The company has partnered with companies such as Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm, along with a number of venture capitalists looking to invest in new products able to tap into the faster network.

"We are all aligned with Verizon to ensure the success and leading position for the US," said Rima Qureshi, chief strategy officer for Swedish telecom supplier Ericsson.