Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
AT&T may have just amicably settled a false advertising lawsuit with Sprint over its “5G Evolution” branding, but the company’s apparent marketing strategy here is proving to be a disaster. Rather than taking a victory lap for arriving at real 5G faster than its US competitors — AT&T’s actual 5G network currently supports more cities than Verizon’s — the company is still clinging to a meaningless, confusing logo it refuses to walk away from.
While AT&T has stated plainly that 5G Evolution isn’t actually 5G, in that it doesn’t meet the technical or speed standards to be classified as such, the end goal seems to be tricking its own customers into thinking they’re accessing a next-generation network through pure obfuscation. The end result: a whole lot of confusion and news outlets, like The Verge, having to routinely stress that 5G E is a misleading attempt to gin up hype with no basis in hard data.
Just take a look at prominent technology CEO Marc Benioff, who runs cloud computing company Salesforce. Earlier today, Benioff asked his Twitter audience of nearly 1 million people why his phone was displaying a 5G logo, and whether that meant he had access to the next-gen network, similar to one that is in fact up and running in South Korea and accessible using the special 5G variant of the Samsung Galaxy S10. (That version of the S10 is not yet available in the US.)
Does mean I’m now on 5G in San Francisco with 10 Gigabits with super low latency? My phone doesn’t have a5G chipset but it reads 5G. I saw real 5G last week South Korea and it was astonishing. 100,000 antennas and 10,000 servers connected to a 5G core. Who knows the answer? pic.twitter.com/mtQtQ0VesI
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) April 22, 2019
So yes, even the chief executive of a technology company seems to be confused by AT&T’s branding. (He may just been engaging in a bit of facetious argument; we’ve reached to Benioff on Twitter to see if he’ll clarify his intentions with the tweet.)
Regardless, there are A&T customers out there who are legitimately confused. When I wrote about AT&T’s 5G deployment earlier this month, in which it boasted about 5G availability in 19 US cities despite not having any commercially available devices to make use of it, a confused reader emailed me to similarly tell me that he thought he had access to the network on his phone. The included screenshot this reader attached featured an iPhone home screen with the 5G E logo in the upper righthand corner. I had to write back and explain that no, it was not in fact real 5G. At least one Verge editor has also had to explain to a confused family member that they have not in fact received a network upgrade overnight; countless examples of other AT&T subscribers have voiced similar confusion online.
Now, that’s not to say that AT&T’s network hasn’t been getting faster over time. It is, according to speed test data collected by firms like Ookla and submitted to The Verge by users running individual speed tests. But as pointed out in the past, the speed bumps aren’t as dramatic as AT&T makes them sound, and they have nothing to do with 5G. The data used to make AT&T’s speeds sound more impressive also come with a lot of caveats, like the fact that the 5G E logo’s appearance on newer iPhones caused an influx of new tests that skewed more recent data in AT&T’s favor.
In some cases, the speeds you get on 5G E on AT&T’s network may in fact be slower than the speeds you’ll receive on T-Mobile and Verizon using smartphones that can access LTE Advanced and Advanced Pro technologies, which are the variants of LTE that AT&T has rebranded as 5G E. That’s all 5G E really is — rebranded LTE network technologies.
OpenSignal, the analytics firm behind the study revealing that embarrassing data point, called 5G E “a meaningless marketing move designed to confuse customers and make AT&T seem like it has a technological leg up on the cutting edge of wireless technology.” In stronger terms, the company added, “It is, plainly speaking, bullshit.”
“It is, plainly speaking, bullshit.”
But AT&T doesn’t seem to care. In settling its false advertising suit with Sprint today, AT&T plans to continue using 5G E marketing, according to anonymous sources cited by the Dallas Business Journal. And when initially defending itself from Sprint, which brought the lawsuit after a survey found more than half of participants thought 5G E was comparable to real 5G, AT&T said its “customers want and deserve to know when they are getting better speeds.”
The company claimed it had done enough to clarify the difference between 5G E and standard 5G. Not enough, in appears, for prominent tech figures like Benioff and for countless AT&T customers. AT&T was not immediately available for comment for this story.
Hey @ATT how about you go back to #LTE instead of this #5ge crap? First pic is your “faster new service” and second picture is LTE. pic.twitter.com/oSTgfXjTqO
— Ashley Skipton (@AshleySkipton) April 22, 2019
What is 5Ge?!? pic.twitter.com/EgQzjuOk5Z
— Alison (@AlisonL) April 14, 2019
The tale of two internet speeds – home WiFi and so-called 5Ge pic.twitter.com/riJ0x73wDb
— Dave Smiddy (@davesmiddy) April 19, 2019
The real test, of course, will be when smartphones do finally have the requisite 5G modems required to access AT&T’s next-gen network, and the company has to explain yet again that there’s a new, faster technology on the block that’s different than before. When that happens, I’m sure AT&T hopes people suddenly know and recognize the difference between 5G E and the genuine article. Because it will be a real challenge to boast to customers about next-gen network deployment after spending months tricking those same users into thinking that network has already arrived.
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