Carriers around the world are just starting to roll out 5G service, but AT&T jumped the gun a bit with its “5G Evolution” branding for LTE. Other carriers, consumer watchdogs, and obsessive technology journalists have been pointing out how misleading it can be, and now the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) agrees. AT&T will tone down its 5GE branding, but it’s not completely giving it up.
AT&T debuted its 5GE branding toward the end of 2018 with “5GE” icons attached to the signal bars on smartphones. The carrier also talked about 5G Evolution in its marketing materials. AT&T’s angle was that 5GE would be its stepping stone to true 5G because they include some of the same technologies like 256 QAM, 3-way carrier aggregation, and 4X4 MIMO. However, other carriers already had those technologies deployed on LTE, and they didn’t start calling their networks 5G-anything.
By some measures, AT&T’s 4G network got substantially faster after the 5GE upgrade. AT&T’s LTE spectrum is more split up than the other major carriers, so newer network technologies like carrier aggregation helped devices make better use of the bands. But 5GE was never real 5G even though plenty of AT&T’s customers thought it was. Now that real 5G is starting to roll out, AT&T’s 5GE branding is perhaps even more confusing for consumers, and the NARB has finally told AT&T to knock it off.
The NARB is not an independent body — it’s an advertising industry group that aims to self-police its members. So, you can imagine how misleading AT&T’s marketing would have to be for the NARB to scold the carrier publicly. The board found that AT&T’s addition of “Evolution” to 5G was not sufficiently clear to differentiate it from true 5G service. AT&T “respectfully disagrees” with the decision but says it will comply. Well, sort of.
AT&T has agreed to stop advertising 5GE, but that’s an easy decision to make. AT&T has real 5G service in numerous markets, so it doesn’t need to brag about its fake 5G anymore. Importantly, AT&T will not stop displaying 5GE icons on smartphones. This is arguably the most misleading part of the carrier’s 5GE branding — even people who don’t pay attention to the marketing can be tricked into thinking AT&T is offering 5G in their area. As usual with carriers, it’s two steps forward and one step back.
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