Did AT&T trick your business into paying for fake 5G? Sprint lawsuit says yes

Sprint is suing AT&T over use of "5G E" to characterize industry standard LTE Advanced technology, as their market research finds AT&T's marketing ploy confuses subscribers.

Separating the hype from reality in initial 5G mobile networks and smartphones James Sanders and Karen Roby discuss the immediate future of 5G mobile networks and smartphones, and how existing equipment cannot be updated to 5G via software updates.


Sprint is suing AT&T over branding changes that portrays existing 4G LTE networks as "5G Evolution," according to a Reuters report. In January, AT&T began rolling out software updates to AT&T-branded smartphones changing the "LTE" icon to say "5G E," as part of the carrier's attempt to blur lines between two fundamentally incompatible mobile network standards, a move that prompted T-Mobile to mock AT&T on Twitter following the stunt.

iPhones are not immune to this marketing ploy either, as the Reuters report notes "smartphones running on both Android and Apple's iOS platforms are sporting '5G E' for AT&T customers, even though those phones are not equipped to support 5G." Sprint's market research found that AT&T's deceptive ploy is working, as "54 percent of AT&T's consumers believed their '5G E' network is the same as or better than a 5G network and 43 percent said if they buy an AT&T phone today, it would be capable of running on 5G," Reuters reported.

SEE: 5G Research Report 2019: The enterprise is eager to adopt, despite cost concerns and availability (Tech Pro Research)

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told CNBC that "we feel very comfortable with how we characterize the new service," citing increases in speed that are "an evolutionary step to 5G," and that "we are being very clear with our customers that this an evolutionary step."

An AT&T spokesperson previously confirmed to TechRepublic that its "5G Evolution" is built on LTE Advanced technology. LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro offer features like 4x4 MIMO and 256QAM, which allow for Gigabit-level speeds. These are industry standards available to all mobile network operators. Of note, LTE stands for "Long Term Evolution," indicating the expectation that such upgrades would be deployed by mobile network operators throughout the lifespan of the LTE standard.

For comparison, the 5G NR standard allows for data transmission rates up to 20 Gbps, though presently this is a theoretical maximum based on laboratory testing of proof-of-concept hardware, and is unlikely to be available on initial rollouts of 5G NR networks. 5G is not an incremental or backward-compatible update to existing standards, is separate from 4G standards like LTE or WiMAX, and cannot be delivered to existing phones, tablets, or wireless modems by means of tower upgrades or software updates.

For an overview of 5G networks, when and where 5G networks are being deployed, when true 5G smartphones are being released, and how businesses and consumers can benefit from 5G technologies, check out TechRepublic's cheat sheet for 5G mobile networks and for 5G smartphones.

AT&T Corporate Communications AVP Jim Greer provided this statement to TechRepublic:

We understand why our competitors don't like what we are doing, but our customers love it. We introduced 5G Evolution more than two years ago, clearly defining it as an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G. 5G Evolution and the 5GE indicator simply let customers know when their device is in an area where speeds up to twice as fast as standard LTE are available. That's what 5G Evolution is, and we are delighted to deliver it to our customers."

We will fight this lawsuit while continuing to deploy 5G Evolution in addition to standards-based mobile 5G. Customers want and deserve to know when they are getting better speeds. Sprint will have to reconcile its arguments to the FCC that it cannot deploy a widespread 5G network without T-Mobile while simultaneously claiming in this suit to be launching 'legitimate 5G technology imminently.'

TechRepublic is unable to independently verify these claims.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • Sprint is suing AT&T over branding changes that portray LTE Advanced networks as "5G Evolution."
  • AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said "we are being very clear with our customers that this an evolutionary step."

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By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.