2020 Preview: 5G marketing remains messy

This year already saw its share of confusion among consumers as U.S. operators launched initial 5G service, and 2020 could see additional growing pains when different flavors of the next-generation technology hit the masses.

Next year carriers have pledged to deliver more widespread 5G coverage and enhanced benefits, but respective approaches and spectrum holdings mean 5G could be different things to different people.

Verizon plans to continue its millimeter wave 5G deployments, with mobile service it dubs "Ultra Wideband 5G" expanding from 30 markets in 2019. Earlier this year Verizon’s consumer group chief executive Ronan Dunne made a point of calling out differences between 5G using high-band spectrum and that using low or mid-band frequencies saying, “not all 5G is created equal.”

T-Mobile, meanwhile, has touted the enhanced reach of its low-band 600 MHz rollouts, and hopes to leverage Sprint’s mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum.

“When Verizon says #5GBuiltRight, they must mean sparse, expensive and limited to outdoors only,” said Neville Ray, T-Mobile President of Technology, in a statement during the operator’s December launch. “Meanwhile at T-Mobile, we built 5G that works for more people in more places, and this is just the start.”

Network testing company Opensignal published 2020 predictions that warn diverging 5G deployment and marketing strategies could lead to consumer confusion about 5G next year.

“Carriers’ 5G strategies will polarize between those operators that offer very wide 5G reach but slower mobile network experience and those services delivering on pockets of extremely fast high-capacity 5G like Verizon’s UWB, and T-Mobile and AT&T’s initial mmWave 5G services,” wrote Sue Marek in an Opensignal 2020 Predictions blog. “The combination of the two approaches will create confusing messages about 5G’s real benefits and may hurt carriers’ marketing efforts to use 5G to acquire new customers.”

5G marketing confusion already impacted consumers in 2019. According to a January survey by PCMag, more than four out of five Americans indicated they didn’t know what 5G was, and notably of those who did, 25% reported already having the technology, despite a lack of commercial handsets at the time.

Sprint settled a lawsuit against AT&T in April over the latter’s controversial "5G Evolution" branding, which displayed a "5GE" connectivity icon when phones connected to enhanced portions of AT&T’s 4G LTE network. The matter was settled amicably out of court and AT&T has continued to use the icon.

It appears 5G marketing could continue to pose issues for carriers and consumers next year.

Earlier this month, AT&T rolled out 5G using low-band 850 MHz spectrum in 10 markets and has promised to deliver nationwide sub-6 GHz 5G coverage in the first half of 2020. Already the carrier is differentiating between its two flavors of 5G (in addition to 5GE ), positioning low-band 5G for use in residential, suburban and rural areas. Meanwhile, its high-band 5G service over mmWave spectrum, what AT&T calls "5G+", is aimed at dense, high-trafficked areas like stadiums and arena, shopping centers, and university campuses.

Also adding to the 5G mix is Verizon’s fixed wireless in-home broadband product, called 5G Home. That offering leverages mmWave spectrum and now uses the global 3GPP New Radio (NR) standard.

Speaking to FierceWireless in December, Verizon’s Nicki Palmer reiterated the carrier’s thrust on mmWave saying it “provides a fantastic experience for consumers and businesses alike.”

With various approaches and applications, Opensignal stressed that consistent messaging is key for 5G in 2020.

“It is in everyone’s interest — carriers and consumers — for the benefits of real 5G to be clearly and consistently communicated,” wrote Marek. “Otherwise, consumers may hold off adopting 5G and not see the benefits, and carriers may end up not seeing the returns on their 5G investments that they expect."