AT&T defends use of ‘5G Evolution’ branding for LTE service, promises theoretical speeds up to 1 Gbps this year

AT&T caused a slight uproar this week when it announced it will offer “5G Evolution internet speeds” in 20 major metro areas by the end of this year. The announcement is noteworthy considering the 3GPP—the main standards organization for the wireless industry—announced just last month that it won’t have the first iteration of the 5G standard ready until December 2017 (though that’s earlier than the organization initially had planned).

AT&T’s use of the “5G” brand for its upcoming launch sparked a range of reactions from journalists, analysts and wireless executives.

And some publications sought to address the issue. "AT&T announces it will build a fake 5G network" reported The Verge. "AT&T is the first carrier to say it has a '5G' network, which is complete bulls---," noted Android Police. 

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray used AT&T's action to make his own tongue-in-cheek announcement:

When questioned about the action by FierceWireless, AT&T defended its use of the 5G label. “AT&T’s 5G Evolution lays the foundation for 5G while the standards are being finalized,” the carrier wrote in response to questions from FierceWireless. “We’re continuing to invest in our wireless network by adding small cells and using advanced 5G Evolution achieved through upgrades like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and more.”

Added the carrier: “And as we continue densifying our network and deploying technologies like carrier aggregation and LTE-License Assisted Access (LAA), we expect to enable theoretical peak speeds up to 1 Gbps in some areas in 2017.”

Indeed, AT&T has already started to discuss 5G in its advertising:

AT&T didn’t offer any details on how exactly it defines “5G Evolution,” but it did point to technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM as examples of what it will use to offer “5G Evolution internet speeds” in its 20 markets this year. However, to be clear, AT&T is not alone in deploying advanced LTE technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM. Indeed, T-Mobile in September of 2016 announced it launched 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM. The carrier said it had been offering carrier aggregation since 2014. Verizon and Sprint during the past several years too have also discussed their own launches of carrier aggregation and MIMO.

It’s worth noting though that AT&T has worked to be at the forefront of 5G technology. For example, the carrier almost a year ago said it had tested 5G network technology and recorded download speeds of 14 Gbps to a single user and 5 Gbps to two users. The carrier’s 5G tests have run in 15 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum bands.

Indeed, AT&T was among a group of companies that successfully urged the 3GPP to accelerate its timeline for the release of the non-stand-alone (NSA) implementation of 5G New Radio (NR), paving the way for enabling large-scale trials and deployments based on the specification starting in 2019 instead of 2020.

AT&T is also widely regarded as a leader in the service provider move toward virtualized, software-powered systems; the carrier announced earlier this year it expects to equip 55% of its network with software by the end of 2017.

Further, this isn’t the first time wireless operators have sought to brand a service with a bigger “G.” Sprint branded its WiMAX network as a 4G offering, while T-Mobile (and then later AT&T) both branded HSPA as 4G before the arrival of LTE. Those moves were notable considering the wireless industry widely regards LTE as the official 4G technology.

In fact, AT&T isn’t even the first U.S. wireless carrier to deploy the 5G brand. Maine’s Redzone Wireless flipped the switch in January on its “5Gx” fixed wireless network in 10 rural and suburban markets across the state in what appears to be the nation’s first launch of a 5G-branded service.