The claims and counterclaims are the latest flare-ups in the race to be first with the next generation of mobile service, which by most accounts isn't really going to arrive until 2020.

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AT&T is putting a little “5G E” icon in the corner of mobile-phone screens, and its wireless rivals are crying foul.

T-Mobile US Chief Executive Officer John Legere called the ploy “fake” 5G, among other unprintable words, on the Bellevue company’s earnings call Thursday. Sprint filed suit, calling AT&T’s “5G E” label deceptive and harmful. It’s asking a New York federal court for an injunction. Verizon Communications spokesman Jeffrey Nelson joked that the “E” means “eventually.”

The claims and counterclaims are the latest flare-ups in the race to be first with the next generation of mobile service, which by most accounts isn’t really going to arrive until 2020. The lawsuit and criticism underscore the urgency as each company seeks an edge in the $260 billion North American wireless industry.

The tension grew over the past several weeks as some iPhones and Androids began displaying AT&T’s 5G E symbol near the network coverage bars at the top of phone screens. AT&T calls it 5G Evolution, and it is intended to show when a phone is within range of its enhanced 4G network.

It’s a throwback to a decade ago when 4G was the new thing. Sprint dubbed its short-lived WiMax network 4G, while T-Mobile and AT&T blurred the lines by calling advanced 3G a flavor of 4G.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson defended the “5G E” branding in a TV interview Friday. We are “being clear with our customers, this is an evolutionary step to 5G. This is a dramatic step change improvement in what the customers experience,” he said on CNBC.

The 5G tech race will take years, but the marketing contest is happening right now, and as BTIG analyst Walt Piecyk points out, consumers care more about speed and performance than they do about the industry’s definition of 5G.

“I don’t think AT&T’s use of ‘5G E’ is Sprint’s biggest problem,” Piecyk said.