AT&T has been using some shady marketing to convince the world it’s leading the pack on the road to next-generation wireless technology—5G. And one of its executives seems to believe that consumers will love the company’s shadily branded service.
AT&T has begun showing the “5G E” icon on some Android phones, instead of “4G LTE.” This 5G E service has been live since April 2017, and AT&T says it has since expanded to “more than 400 markets” and “nearly 20" supported devices. But there’s a slight problem with calling it “5G E”—because it’s a term that AT&T itself has defined, and is not the actual, standard-based 5G technology you’ve been hearing all about lately. AT&T’s standard-based 5G, however, only launched in December 2018 and is currently compatible with mobile hotspots—and not smartphones just yet.
The “E” of “5G E” is crucial. See, it stands for “evolution,” as in a “work in progress.” But there’s still a lot of progress to be made—a whole new infrastructure, for starters.
AT&T’s marketing move has been criticized by tech bloggers and competing carriers as a deceptive way to convince consumers it’s providing something it can’t. But in an interview today with Tom’s Guide, AT&T senior vice president for wireless technology Igal Elbaz defended the strategy.
“We’ve been talking about 5G Evolution for a while now. We were pretty public about what we were doing and what we were deploying,” Elbaz told Tom’s Guide.
“All of our investment in the infrastructure and hardware is all 5G ready, so the moment the 5G software and the 5G devices show up, it’s a software upgrade to our network to enable our customers to move to 5G,” Elbaz told the tech site.
But as Tom’s Guide pointed out, people with “5G E” products will have to get a new device once real 5G is available.
Tom’s Guide editor in chief Mark Spoonauer asked Elbaz if using the term “5G E” is misleading since it’s not actually incorporating 5G technology, and Elbaz explained, “our customers will love [5G E]. What we’re trying to do is let them know that there is an enhanced experience in their market.”
AT&T did not immediately respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on criticism that the term “5G E” is misleading. But apparently, it doesn’t matter if the term is, so long as the customers like it.
Correction January 10, 2018 at 11:22am ET: An earlier version of this story said AT&T launched its 5G E service in December 2018, but it actually launched in April 2017. AT&T’s “standard-based” 5G network, which currently only works with mobile hotspots, is the service that launched in December. We regret the error.