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AT&T is 'proud' it referred to its upgraded 4G LTE network as 5G E

Rivals say AT&T is deceiving customers by calling its network 5G E. AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan said he's "breaking the industry's narrative."

AT&T CEO John Donovan interviewed by MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan.
Sarah Tew/CNET

The tiny right corner of your smartphone's screen holds some valuable real estate. 

After all, it's where you stare at to see if you have coverage, or whether you're on Wi-Fi. It's also where you can find out if you're on 3G or 4G LTE. That little space caused a big stir after AT&T decided to add a new symbol, called 5G E.

The change on Monday ignited a critical backlash from critics who argue that 5G E is really just an upgraded version of the 4G LTE network, and is more a marketing change than a technology change. Both Verizon and T-Mobile bashed AT&T, calling it a way to mislead consumers into thinking they already have 5G. The company has already run commercials touting 5G E across 100 markets. 

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But AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan, speaking at a keynote address at CES 2019, said he's happy with the change.

"If I've occupied beachfront properties in my competitor's head, that makes me smile," Donovan said in the keynote. "I'm proud that we broke our industry's narrative two days ago."

The push to garner more of that 5G buzz underscores excitement for the technology, which promises to bring a significant boost to speed and responsiveness, and serve as a foundation for other trends like self-driving cars, the Internet of Things and telemedicine. That AT&T wants to push its narrative of preparedness for 5G speaks to the competitive nature of the carriers, which are all vying to be the first to a new technology.

Verizon says it's first to 5G with its home broadband service, while AT&T launched its mobile 5G service in 12 markets last month. But the company has attracted criticism for the decision to rebrand some of its upgraded 4G networks as 5G E, which some see as misleading.

"The wireless business is fiercely competitive, but borne in superlatives," Donovan said, noting that AT&T was first with a standards-based service with a real device (a wireless hotspot). "It was a first, and that's a foundation that we build on.

"We really frustrated rivals last month when we did so."

Donovan dismissed the criticism of the 5G E switch, saying he found that people were amenable to the change and were interested in hearing more about the experience.

Under his definition, 5G E means any of the markets where you would get at least double the speed of the standard 4G network.

But other carriers have all been working on upgrading their networks with the same technology, so nothing AT&T is doing is particularly unusual. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, in a knock against AT&T, said he would continue to market his 4G network as a 4G service.

While T-Mobile has been the most vocal critic of the move, it echoes a similar change made back when 4G was just coming into the public consciousness. At the time, T-Mobile decided to call its 3G service, which ran on an upgraded technology called HSPA+, 4G. AT&T initially knocked T-Mobile, but eventually made the same switch.

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Editors' note: This article was first published Jan. 9, 2018 at 2:46 p.m. PT.