Marek’s Take: 5G is in its infancy, and consumers are already confused

Marek's take

The wireless industry has always had a tendency to make its marketing messages complicated, and 5G is not immune to this trend. In fact, as 5G becomes more widely available in the U.S., it  seems as if operators are intent upon making their 5G messaging as complex as possible.

AT&T is perhaps the biggest culprit. The operator took some heat a year ago when it started changing the “LTE” indicator on some of its current Android phones to “5GE,” which stands for 5G Evolution. It’s using the 5GE label in markets where the company is basically offering a very fast version of LTE. Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T for its 5G Evolution branding. The two operators settled the lawsuit a few months later, but AT&T continues to use its 5GE label.

However, AT&T didn’t stop with 5GE. It also labeled its 5G network where it uses millimeter wave (high-band) spectrum to provide what it calls a “faster 5G service” as 5G+. This 5G+ service is currently available in 20 cities and requires a new device.

And if you want plain 5G AT&T is also going to offer that beginning early next year. The company revealed last month that it will launch 5G using its 850 MHz (low-band) spectrum in the first half of 2020 and the first markets will be Indianapolis, Indiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island; Rochester, New York and San Diego, California. This 5G service will require a new 5G smartphone.

But I already have 5G

If AT&T’s goal with its 5GE branding was to get its consumers to believe they were using a 5G network even if they aren’t, then the company’s strategy is a success.

According to a new Strategy Analytics survey of smartphone owners that it conducted in July and August of 2019, 29% of AT&T’s customers think they already have 5G. This will likely be problematic for the operator when it wants to convince those 29% of its customers that they need to upgrade to 5G or 5G+.

AT&T customers aren’t the only ones confused about 5G. Across all U.S. carriers, 37% of survey respondents thought they already had 5G even though they probably do not.

AT&T isn’t the only operator coming up with multiple monikers for 5G. Verizon also has different branding for its 5G services. The operator has Ultra Wideband 5G, which is its mobile 5G service, and it’s currently available in 18 cities, with plans to grow to 30 cities by year-end. Verizon’s Ultra Wideband 5G uses millimeter wave spectrum, and requires a new device.

The operator also has a fixed 5G product, called 5G Home. Verizon first launched this in-home fixed wireless 5G product in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento in October 2018 but it used a proprietary 5G standard. It has since launched 5G home in Chicago using a 3GPP-compliant version of the 5G NR standard and plans to expand that to more markets. This service requires a 5G NR-compatible router.

The U.S. isn’t the only country that is coming up with multiple labels for its 5G services. Swisscom has different names for its 5G rollout phases. 5G Wide is what it’s calling its extensive 5G coverage that is faster than its LTE network but uses the 2.1 GHz spectrum coupled with dynamic spectrum sharing technology.

5G Fast is what Swisscom is labeling its 5G that is deployed in 3.5 GHz spectrum, and promises speeds of up to 2 Gbps.

5G leadership

Interestingly, among those surveyed by the analyst firm, Verizon has the perception of being a leader in 5G with 27% of respondents identifying the carrier as a 5G leader. AT&T was picked by 18% as being the 5G leader. Only 8% of those surveyed thought T-Mobile was the 5G leader. It’s worth noting that this survey occurred before T-Mobile launched its 5G network nationwide last week using its 600 MHz spectrum.

I think having multiple monikers for 5G will only confuse consumers, and make it more difficult to explain to them why they need to upgrade their devices (and pay a premium price for that next-generation smartphone.) 

Strategy Analytics’ survey results are an early indication that consumers are already confused about 5G. Operators should take note of these survey results, and try to simplify their marketing messages as 5G becomes more available nationwide.