AT&T’s Donovan says competitors ‘frustrated’ by AT&T’s 5G prowess

LAS VEGAS—AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan said he is pleased to occupy beachfront property in his competitors’ minds after AT&T “frustrated” them by being the first to launch a commercial standards-based mobile 5G service last month.

Two years ago, AT&T announced that it was entering an on-ramp to 5G and calling it “5G Evolution.” Now that the 5G E icon has shown up on AT&T customers' phones practically overnight this week, it’s sparking all kinds of furry within the hypercompetitive wireless industry, according to Donovan.

Indeed, AT&T has been the subject of a lot angst among 5G stakeholders who are calling out the operator for labeling its 4G LTE service a “5G E” offering on the Android handsets, correlating to certain markets equipped with its “5G Evolution” technology. It raised eyebrows inside the wireless industry and elsewhere.

Donovan said the 5G E icon is appearing in the 400 markets where AT&T has advanced its network, readying it for 5G, and that real estate on the phone always has been a place where the customer goes to see what’s happening with the network. In the early days, customers would consult it for signal coverage.

Now, AT&T felt like it needed to give customers an indicator of what’s happening when their speed is twice what they were getting with 4G. Some customers are experiencing four or eight times the speed of LTE, he said.

On a less contested subject, he also discussed how 5G is vastly different from those earlier generations of wireless. Networks are often invisible and ubiquitous and nobody thinks much about it—it’s like oxygen. But 5G is different. It’s not just faster and more efficient; it’s a real-time network and therefore it’s a game changer.

AT&T in December announced the launch of the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot and a 5G mobile network in 12 cities based on standards, but that did not include a smartphone.

So far, AT&T has confirmed plans for three 5G devices for 2019. In addition to the Nighthawk mobile hotspot, AT&T said it’s is working with Samsung to offer two Samsung smartphones this year.

RELATED: Carriers rush to announce 5G smartphones at CES

Verizon is among those taking issue with AT&T’s decision to rebrand advanced LTE technologies as 5G and said it could “confuse consumers, public officials and the investment community about what 5G really is,” in a prepared statement earlier this week. “We’re calling on the broad wireless industry to commit to labeling something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities,” wrote Kyle Malady, CTO of Verizon.

“Our industry knows 5G will change the world. Let’s uphold that promise, while maintaining our integrity,” he added. “The success of the 5G technological revolution must be measured in truth and fact, not marketing hype.”

Others have had a similar reaction. "AT&T is blatantly misleading consumers—5GE is not real 5G," Sprint CTO John Saw said in a statement to Engadget.

Of course, T-Mobile CEO John Legere couldn’t stay on the sidelines, snaring Verizon into a string of tweets as well: