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5G E? 5G Plus? 5G Ul­traw­ide­band? Will the real 5G please stand up?

AT&T has drawn ridicule by re­la­bel­ing the net­work used by some of its phones as “5G E” to sig­nal that the next-gen­er­a­tion wireless net­work is here. Prob­lem is, phones ca­pa­ble of con­nect­ing to 5G aren’t com­ing for an­other few months, and a na­tional 5G net­work won’t be de­ployed un­til 2020 or 2021.

But Ver­i­zon, which com­plained this week about AT&T’s move, did some­thing sim­i­lar when it launched a res­i­den­tial wireless ser­vice with the 5G moniker us­ing its own pro­pri­etary tech­nol­ogy. Al­though there are now in­dus­try stan­dards spec­i­fy­ing ex­actly what 5G net­works must meet, dubbed “5G NR,” there are still some grey ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to mar­ket­ing. Car­ri­ers are us­ing all tools at their dis­posal as they race to try to con­vince con­sumers they’ll be “first” with 5G.

A new gen­er­a­tion of wireless net­work comes along ev­ery sev­eral years, so the stakes are high for car­ri­ers to es­tab­lish their dom­i­nance. When it’s fully de­ployed, the “5G” net­work is ex­pected to give mo­bile users faster speeds for video, self­driv­ing cars and con­nected de­vices at home as de­mand for these ramps up.

IDC an­a­lyst Ja­son Leigh said la­bel­ing 5G is a “bat­tle be­tween mar­keters and en­gi­neers,” as they try to bal­ance hype and re­al­ity.

There’s a history of car­ri­ers be­ing murky about net­work claims. AT&T, T-Mo­bile and Sprint started call­ing an en­hanced 3G net­work 4G in the early 2010s. There’s more push­back this time be­cause peo­ple are now more aware of what a next-gen­er­a­tion net­work can do.

AT&T said in De­cem­ber that it would of­fer a “5G Evo­lu­tion” ser­vice to some of its new­est An­droid phones in 400 mar­kets. The “5G Evo­lu­tion” ser­vice is es­sen­tially the ex­ist­ing 4G net­work with some added fea­tures that can boost speeds, tech­nol­ogy sim­i­lar to what Ver­i­zon and T-Mo­bile have also rolled out un­der dif­fer­ent names. That’s separate from the stan­dards-based 5G net­work that AT&T and oth­ers are build­ing. Bob O’Don­nell from Tech­nal­y­sis Re­search said AT&T’s “5G E” net­work may be slightly faster than the cur­rent 4G ser­vice but it is more like “4.5G” than “5G.”

“It’s not re­ally 5G, and it’s very con­fus­ing to peo­ple,” he said. “I’m not very sure what the logic was to be hon­est.”

On Tues­day, Ver­i­zon launched a mar­ket­ing of­fen­sive push­ing back on the “5G E” la­bel with full-page ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal and else­where.

“The po­ten­tial to over-hype and un­der-de­liver on the 5G prom­ise is a temp­ta­tion that the wireless in­dus­try must re­sist,”Ver­i­zon chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer Kyle Mal­ady wrote in the ad. Mal­ady also said Ver­i­zon wouldn’t “call our 4G net­work a 5G net­work if cus­tomers don’t ex­pe­ri­ence a per­for­mance or ca­pa­bil­ity up­grade that only 5G can de­liver.”

Still, Ver­i­zon it­self rolled out a 5G wireless broad­band ser­vice in four cities in Oc­to­ber us­ing its own pro­pri­etary tech­nol­ogy rather than in­dus­try-based stan­dards. This res­i­den­tial ser­vice is meant to com­pete with ca­ble rather than of­fer cel­lu­lar con­nec­tiv­ity out­side the home. Ver­i­zon plans to up­date the equip­ment once stan­dards-based de­vices are avail­able, but there’s no time­line for that.

Ver­i­zon spokesman Kevin King said com­par­ing Ver­i­zon’s 5G ser­vice to AT&T’s move is a mis­take be­cause Ver­i­zon has been clear that it wasn’t us­ing stan­dards-com­pli­ant equip­ment right away.

T-Mo­bile CEO John Legere, mean­while, tweeted a tongue-in-cheek video show­ing T-Mo­bile’s LTE net­work sym­bol on a phone re­placed with a piece of tape read­ing “9G.”

AT&T de­clined to com­ment about the push­back.

While there aren’t any le­gal ram­i­fi­ca­tions in call­ing AT&T’s lat­est net­work 5G E, there’s a risk in alien­at­ing cus­tomers, said Leigh, the IDC an­a­lyst.

“They’re en­ti­tled to call their prod­uct what­ever they want,” Leigh said. “Ul­ti­mately they’ll have to deal with any con­fu­sion from a cus­tomer per­spec­tive.”

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