CES: AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan Defends 5G Phone Update

John Donovan - Getty - H 2019
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

AT&T came under fire for updating some phones to include the label 5G E, even though its new wireless technology is not yet widely available.

AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan isn't sweating the criticism that his company has faced for updating some phones to display the 5G E label, a move that competitors are calling misleading for customers. 

"If I occupy beachfront real estate in my competitors' heads, that makes me smile," Donovan on Wednesday told CES attendees during a keynote in Las Vegas. HIs comments came one day after some customers discovered that their phones had changed from reading LTE to 5G E, which stands for 5G Evolution. The move, which caused some confusion, was meant to indicate that the phones were now accessing a network twice as fast as 4G LTE, Donovan said, and one that would pave the way for 5G. 

But competitors slammed AT&T over the move. T-Mobile poked fun at the marketing ploy on Twitter. Verizon took out a full-ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today to tell customers that it wouldn't make the same move. And Sprint's CTO told Engadget that "AT&T is blatantly misleading consumers." 

Donovan wrote off the criticism as frustration from competitors over AT&T's 5G advancements. In the fall, the company announced that it would make a mobile 5G network and mobile 5G devices available to consumers by the end of the year. In December, its 5G network went live in 12 cities. The 5G E network is currently available in hundreds of markets for certain phones. Per Donovan, it is a stepping stone to the fifth generation of wireless technology and is twice as fast as the 4G LTE network that most mobile phones connect to, though still not as fast as 5G will be. Even with AT&T's 5G work, it could be years before most Americans connect to 5G on their mobile phones. 

A popular example used to showcase how fast 5G will be is that people will be able to download a movie onto their phones in seconds. While Donovan did note that "media is probably going to be the one that is most transformed" by 5G technology, he shared a number of different use cases. The exec said that 5G could be used to update billboards in real time and make them personalized based on the interests of drivers. 5G will also be instrumental in making mixed-VR headsets like Magic Leap, which AT&T has invested in, usable in mobile environments. 

As AT&T prepares for 5G, Donovan is rethinking the retail experience. "What's the WOW experience in our store? The WOW stands for 'walk out and watch,'" he said, explaining that he wants customers to know about the content coming from WarnerMedia, which AT&T recently acquired. "It's providing a whole new set of opportunities for the media business."