U.S. wireless carriers and cable providers are all in a race to deliver next-generation connectivity, and the competition is already leading to squabbles over definitions of "real" 5G and even 10G services.
The two largest U.S. wireless providers — Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. — both deployed 5G services in a number of markets at the end of 2018, but Verizon and others are now crying foul at some of AT&T's marketing tactics. Not to be left out, the cable industry said this week that it trademarked the name "10G" for its plans to deliver 10 gigabit-per-second speeds to consumers in the coming years. Executives and industry experts warn these branding battles could cause confusion, but they also note the move to faster speeds is good news for everyone.
After AT&T recently began rolling out its signal indicator for "5G Evolution" services on certain Android devices, executives from Verizon and T-Mobile US Inc. spoke out publicly to say only "real" 5G should be called such. AT&T's 5G Evolution services are not based on a 5G standard but enable peak theoretical wireless speeds of 400 Mbps, or an average around 40 Mbps based on real-world experiences. By comparison, Tutela Technologies Ltd.'s most recent Mobile Experience Report from November 2018 pegged AT&T's average 4G download speeds at 15.65 Mbps.
Verizon Chief Technology Officer Kyle Malady wrote a blog post in which he warned the wireless industry at large against engaging in "behavior designed to purposefully confuse consumers, public officials and the investment community about what 5G really is." Without calling out AT&T by name, Malady said Verizon will not "take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5."
T-Mobile CEO John Legere similarly responded Jan. 8 with a series of colorfully worded tweets on what he termed "5G fiction."
On AT&T and its 5G Evolution service, Legere said, "Slapping '5G e' on something that is actually LTE is like putting an extra 0 on a $10 bill and calling it $100 bill!!" As to Malady's blog post, Legere noted that Verizon's own 5G home broadband service is currently based on a pre-standard specification rather than the 5G global standard. He accused Verizon of the same "5G puffery" as AT&T.
Speaking at CES 2019 on Jan. 9, AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan defended the 5G Evolution signal indicator on phones, saying, "We felt we had to give [consumers] an indicator that your speed is twice what it was with traditional 4G LTE." He added AT&T conducted customer research before making the change and found consumers were not only "amenable" to the change but interested in knowing when they were in areas where they could enjoy faster speeds.
In terms of the criticism from other operators, Donovan said he thought it came from a place of frustration. "If I now occupy beachfront real estate in my competitors' heads, that makes me smile," he said.
While wireless operators battled over 5G, the cable industry showcased its 10G initiative at the technology trade show CES 2019 on Jan. 9.
The initiative is built around cable's 10 Gigabit Full Duplex DOCSIS technological standard, which makes it possible to deliver multigigabit upload and download speeds over existing cable infrastructure.
"While the world is talking about 5G, we're proud to be part of this extraordinary movement to 10G," Liberty Global PLC CEO Mike Fries said in a news release.
Among the operators implementing the 10G initiative are U.S. providers Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications Inc., among others, as well as international operators such as Liberty Global. Lab trials, led by the cable industry's research and development group CableLabs, are already underway and field trials are set to begin in 2020.
With both the cable and wireless industries advertising and arguing over next-generation labels, Raoul Davis, head of the CEO branding development firm Ascendant Group, said he sees "a great deal of concern around muddying the waters" in terms of consumers being able to understand "the difference between what 4G and 5G and 10G means."
Beyond this risk of further complicating an already technical subject, Davis said companies touting advanced services that may not live up to expectations also run the risk of being perceived as inauthentic.
"We're in a climate where authenticity becomes more important for corporations daily," Davis said.
Ian Olgierson, a multichannel analyst with Kagan, a research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, also sees a risk for consumer confusion, but believes that at least for the cable operators pushing 10G, "The confusion with 5G is an acceptable consequence for the industry."
"From a branding standpoint, the industry is looking to stake out the high ground in the next step in bandwidth enhancements, tout a jump in speed and blur the lines between wireless and wireline broadband in a way that is beneficial to cable operators," said Olgierson. "10G seems to accomplish most of those goals."
Brian Dietz, a spokesman for cable industry trade group NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, maintained that the race to deliver 5G and 10G services is one that will ultimately benefit consumers, not hurt or confuse them.
"With the evolution of 5G networks and our industry's commitment to 10G, this is as an exciting time for communications infrastructure in America," he said, adding "the development of both fixed and wireless networks is good for consumers and the country."