Is AT&T ‘5G E’ Phone Really 5G?

Article By : Prakash Sangam

AT&T dropped a bombshell with the news its 4G phones supporting advanced features will display the connection as 5G E, following its confusing branding of "5G Evolution"...

The telecom industry made big strides in making 5G real in 2018 with increasing awareness of the transformational nature of 5G in the general populace. Nevertheless, this year will be remembered as the year of 5G hype.

Over the last three technology evolutions, I have seen many companies pulling shenanigans to falsely claim next-generation features in their products or services. This was the case with 3G (EDGE) as well as 4G (WiMAX and HSPA+). There also were attempts to name intermediate steps as 3.5G, 3.75G even 3.99G, which added to the confusion, generating confusion and flak from customers.

The allure of making over-reaching claims is irresistible. All U.S. operators are guilty of this sin, not just AT&T.

Verizon calls its proprietary 5GTF (5G Technical Forum) network 5G. T-Mobile, which is behind in commercializing 5G, ridicules other operators’ limited coverage using millimeter-wave spectrum. T-Mobile will use sub-6-GHz bands.

On top of this confusion, there are many claims of world or industry firsts for sometimes trivial things. Vodafone claimed the world’s first holographic 5G call while O2 and Three said they will use sewers for providing 5G fiber connectivity.

Let’s look at the generally accepted definition of 5G to separate real facts from alternate facts. Each cellular generation introduces a new air-interface protocol. 3G used Code Division Multiple Access; 4G LTE used Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA).

5G uses an optimized version of OFDMA along with a few other access technologies in an interface simply called 5G-New Radio (5G-NR), defined in Release15 of 3GPP. In my view, only the systems that support 5G-NR should get the coveted 5G moniker.

Some might claim that this is a purist view, and the definition of 5G should be based on the user experience, not some technical nomenclature. Compliance with a well-defined standard is enough for me, an engineer at heart. The generational shift is a once-in-a-decade deal and should be clearly and distinctly experienced by users.

The harm in AT&T, or anybody else for that matter, stretching the meaning of 5G is first that it creates customer confusion. It’s no easy task explaining differences among 5G, 5G-NR and 5G E to the average consumer.

Secondly, there is a huge possibility of disappointing customers when they can’t get the promised generational shift in performance and user experience, especially after the 5G hype. There’s no reason to pay more to get a different symbol on the top of a phone offering similar services.

By calling a 4G service 5G, AT&T can show an expanded coverage footprint when it starts selling 5G services. It also could be a clever ploy to disguise and upsell 4G networks upgrades under a 5G umbrella—but alert observers will quickly see through that scheme.

Perhaps AT&T doesn’t see any new revenue opportunity in 5G, a proposition that’s a bit unrealistic and outright scary. If the carrier uses 5G as a lower cost-per-bit option for 4G data pricing they might try to undercut the competition.

Whatever the reason, calling a 4G network 5G can lead to lost opportunity and further erosion of the already low trust consumers have in cellular operators. Creating confusion and devaluing 5G is not in the best interest of the carrier, its customers, or the larger expanding 5G ecosystem.

— Prakash Sangam is founder and principal at Tantra Analyst LLC.

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