The Wall Street Journal
AT&T, Verizon put their own spin on wireless standards to appear cutting-edge; some decry fake 5G
Telecom companies are promoting 5G wireless connectivity. including a Qualcomm display at CES 2019 in Las Vegas Tuesday. PHOTO: STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS
By Drew FitzGerald
Updated Jan. 9, 2019 3:11 p.m. ET
Updated Jan. 9, 2019 3:11 p.m. ET
What’s 5G wireless service? On this, companies can agree: It’s what comes after 4G.
Asking for a more specific definition of the wireless industry’s brand new thing invites controversy. U.S. telecom companies have started slapping the 5G label on a smorgasbord of technologies, sowing confusion in an industry not known for its simplicity.
AT&T Inc. T -2.18% gained attention in recent days for putting “5GE” labels atop some customers’ Android smartphone screens. The E stands for “evolution,” a sign of the added bandwidth those phones can access as the company lays the groundwork for full-fledged 5G service.
AT&T finance chief John Stephens said the designation is appropriate because the company is upgrading cell towers with new equipment that will immediately improve wireless service quality. Those costly installations will eventually support full 5G service when the company updates antenna systems with newer software, a relatively inexpensive improvement.
“When you see that symbol show up on your phone, it’s happening right now,” Mr. Stephens said Wednesday at a Citi investor conference in Las Vegas. “It’s real. It’s helping our customers today.”
The change caught Robert Ropars, a marketing strategist from Aurora, Ill., off guard earlier this month. He said web browsing on his LG Electronics Inc. smartphone seemed “zippier” when the symbol appeared, though he knows 5G service hasn’t rolled out yet.
“I saw headlines that Verizon and T-Mobile were mocking them,” Mr. Ropars said, adding that news coverage of the technology shows that 5G service requires “more cell towers. That to me says [it’s] a long time coming.”
Despite the name, the 5GE-labeled phones are still only capable of connecting to 4G service.T-Mobile US Inc . technology chief Neville Ray said in a blog post the move was “duping customers into thinking they’re getting something they’re not.” Verizon CommunicationsInc. VZ -1.26% also criticized the tag, arguing real 5G service must use fresh hardware and new radio technology to deserve the moniker.
“Verizon won’t take an old phone and just change the 4 in the status bar to a 5,” the company’s chief technology officer, Kyle Malady, wrote this week in an open letter published online and as full-page newspaper ads.
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Yet Verizon’s critics say it, too, has blurred the line, by focusing its early 5G service on home broadband instead of cellphone improvements. The company developed its own 5G-like specifications years ago to make sure it could get equipment in the field early. The company will upgrade that gear later with new machines subject to the same cutting-edge specifications that other carriers are using.
Verizon spokesman Kevin King said the company has “been pretty clear from the beginning that we’re developing a mobile solution” as well as home broadband. “We’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
The cable industry joined the fray this week at CES 2019, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, by unveiling “10G,” a reference to cable companies’ goal of providing wired broadband service at 10-gigabit speeds. The acronym is unrelated to cellphone carriers’ fifth-generation wireless technology, though the parallel branding wasn’t lost on wireless executives.
Cable companies want to highlight their efforts to boost broadband speeds beyond the 1-gigabit speeds on offer today, said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for cable trade group NCTA. “Our industry felt like it was important to be in that conversation as well,” he said.
It’s hardly the first time telecom marketers have used engineering patter to muddy the waters. T-Mobile caught flak in 2010 for putting 4G labels atop phone screens connected to its upgraded HSPA+ network, which critics argued was only enhanced 3G. Its executives said the new branding was fair because subscribers’ data bandwidth drastically improved.
All four nationwide carriers cover most urban areas with 4G LTE service, which for now remains the gold standard available to consumers. Carriers will need to install tens of thousands of new radio systems to deliver wireless 5G signals. It could take years before a significant number of people own 5G-capable cellphone models, the first of which are only now hitting the market.
Even as Apple Inc. AAPL 1.70% struggles to sell enough of its latest iPhones, U.S. wireless carriers are attracting plenty of new customers with existing technology. T-Mobile said Wednesday it ended the fourth quarter with one million more phone customers on postpaid plans, which are valued because subscribers with monthly bills tend to stick around longer. Verizon said Tuesday it added 650,000 of those phone plans in the fourth quarter, another positive sign for industry profits.
Official 5G specifications, for the record, are set by 3GPP, a global industry group. Its engineering rules then go to the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunication Union. Engineers say the process is slow but gives companies the confidence to make sure the billions of dollars they invest in development and manufacturing isn’t headed toward a dead end.
The new 5G standards, like previous generations, will offer cellphone users a big speed boost. They will also support dense antenna arrays that support a swarm of devices and will make networks more responsive, cutting the time it takes for connected machines to process commands. Those advances could give wireless carriers a bigger foothold in sectors like virtual reality, industrial automation and transportation.
Those distinctions might not matter to customers. The public pays more attention to smoother videos and faster downloads than to technical specifications, said Walt Piecyk, an analyst at brokerage BTIG. In that respect, AT&T’s upgrades might deserve their numerical advantage.
“It’s not that complicated,” Mr. Piecyk said. “Consumers will just figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
Write to Drew FitzGerald at email@example.com