Verizon and T-Mobile bash AT&T over 'fake 5G'

Will the real 5G service please stand up?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
5G above a burst of light

AT&T's rivals say the company's "5G E" service is misleading since it's really based on 4G LTE technology.

A war of words has erupted in the wireless industry as Verizon and T-Mobile lash out against AT&T over its new marketing term "5G E," which suggests devices are connected to a 5G network.

Executives from the two carriers have publicly criticized AT&T for marketing an upgrade to its existing 4G LTE network with a  5G  moniker, when the service doesn't actually use the company's 5G network or comply with 5G standards. They've called AT&T's efforts confusing and deliberately misleading in an effort to get consumers to think they're using AT&T's 5G service when they aren't.

In a blog post Monday that was also published as a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and Washington Post, Verizon's chief technology officer, Kyle Malady, didn't name AT&T directly but said companies that mislabel services as 5G risk confusing consumers. He said "the potential to over-hype and under-deliver on the 5G promise is a temptation that the wireless industry must resist."

Meanwhile, T-Mobile CEO John Legere took to Twitter. In a string of tweets, he accused AT&T of "flat out" lying to consumers to deliberately trick them into thinking the AT&T service is something that it's not.

Watch this: Explaining 5G with a game of pool

The warnings and accusations come as AT&T updates phones with its 5G Evolution technology and replaces the LTE icon on devices with an icon that reads 5G E. While one might assume that that this means that AT&T's phones have been updated to operate on a 5G wireless network, the reality is that the 5G Evolution technology is really just advanced 4G LTE. It improves speeds for consumers but doesn't access a new network based on 5G technology.

But AT&T says the new technology is the foundation for its 5G service, and that's why it's called the service 5G Evolution. The updated service is now available in 400 markets, the company said in a statement. And it has added the 5G E indicator to show customers when they're connected to a 5G Evolution tower. 

The company explained the 5G E upgrade in a blog post last year. 

 "We're upgrading cell towers with LTE Advanced features like 256 QAM, 4x4 MIMO, and 3-way carrier aggregation," AT&T said. "These technologies serve as the runway to 5G by boosting the existing LTE network and priming it for the future of connectivity. We can enable faster speeds now, and upgrade to 5G when it's ready."

The road to 5G

5G is the next generation of wireless service, and it's expected to bring a big boost in speed and network responsiveness, which opens the door to a better mobile experience, as well new areas of tech like streaming VR or telemedicine. The major US wireless carriers are in a race to be first. 

AT&T has already launched a 5G network in a few markets, but it's only available via mobile hotspots. It has yet to launch new phones to access that network. Verizon has also launched its 5G Home service, which has also been criticized as not true 5G since it's not standards-based and uses a proprietary approach based on millimeter-wave spectrum. It's also not designed as a mobile service and is meant to provide last-mile broadband connectivity into people's homes.  

AT&T and Verizon plan to launch mobile 5G in 2019. Verizon's CEO Hans Vestberg confirmed in an interview at CES that its first phone to support the new network will be the Motorola's Moto Z3, which is likely to launch in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile isn't expected to launch its mobile 5G network until 2020. Still, the company has been trying to differentiate itself from its competitors by saying it plans to a deliver nationwide network when it does launch its service, something its rivals won't do on day one. 5G service on AT&T and Verizon is being rolled out in limited pockets of certain markets.

"Only the New @TMobile will be the first to bring REAL #5GForAll with a broad and deep nationwide network," Legere said in a tweet. "And we aren't going to try to fool consumers about it."

Both Verizon and T-Mobile have vowed to be more truthful with consumers to ensure there's no confusion over the "real" 5G services they'll offer. 

"We won't take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5," Verizon's Malady said. 

Still, Legere said Verizon "isn't innocent in all this 5G puffery." 

"I've been calling BS on all the 5G fiction that @ATT and @verizon are spewing since Day 1," he said in a tweet. He added that "When we say '5G,' we mean 5G."

If all of this hoopla sounds vaguely familiar, it's because you have heard it before. Back in 2010, it was T-Mobile that was accused of mislabeling its advanced 3G technology, HSPA+, as 4G.

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