Sprint is suing AT&T, alleging that AT&T’s misleading “5G E” advertising campaign violates laws prohibiting false advertising and deceptive acts and practices.
AT&T renamed a large portion of its 4G network, calling it “5G E,” for “5G Evolution.” But as we’ve written, what AT&T calls 5G E consists of technologies that are part of the years-old 4G LTE-Advanced standard and are already used by Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint on their 4G networks.
Despite that, AT&T has been advertising this supposed upgrade to 5G E and even changing network indicators on smartphones from 4G to 5G E.
“By making the false claim that it is offering a 5G wireless network where it offers only a 4G LTE Advanced network, AT&T is attempting to secure an unfair advantage in the saturated wireless market,” Sprint wrote in a complaint filed yesterday in US District Court for the Southern District of New York. “AT&T’s false and misleading statements deceive consumers into believing that AT&T now operates a 5G wireless network and, through this deception, AT&T seeks to induce consumers to purchase or renew AT&T’s services when they might otherwise have purchased Sprint’s services.”
Sprint alleged that AT&T violated a US law prohibiting false advertising and New York state laws against deceptive acts and practices and false advertising. Sprint asked the court for monetary damages and an injunction preventing AT&T from using 5G or 5G E branding “until the wireless network that AT&T advertises as ‘5GE,’ ‘5G E,’ or ‘5G Evolution,’ or any designation containing ‘5G,’ complies with 3GPP 5G standards.” Sprint’s complaint cites reporting from Ars and other news outlets.
Despite trying to convince consumers that 5G E is different from 4G, OpenSignal measurements in late 2018 found that AT&T’s average download speeds nationwide were slower than Verizon’s and T-Mobile’s 4G networks. Sprint is the only major carrier that AT&T beat in that ranking.
AT&T remains defiant
AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan recently defended the 5G E branding, saying AT&T’s rivals are “frustrated” and that “I have now occupied beachfront real estate in my competitors’ heads.”
AT&T continued its defiance today.
“We understand why our competitors don’t like what we are doing, but our customers love it,” AT&T said in a statement provided to Ars. “We introduced 5G Evolution more than two years ago, clearly defining it as an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G. 5G Evolution and the 5G E indicator simply let customers know when their device is in an area where speeds up to twice as fast as standard LTE are available. That’s what 5G Evolution is, and we are delighted to deliver it to our customers.”
AT&T said it “will fight this lawsuit while continuing to deploy 5G Evolution in addition to standards-based mobile 5G,” and that “customers want and deserve to know when they are getting better speeds.”
AT&T also took a shot at Sprint’s claims that it can’t deploy a robust 5G network unless US regulators approve its proposed merger with T-Mobile.
“Sprint will have to reconcile its arguments to the FCC that it cannot deploy a widespread 5G network without T-Mobile while simultaneously claiming in this suit to be launching ‘legitimate 5G technology imminently,'” AT&T said.
No 5G phones for sale yet
Sprint’s complaint notes that all four major US wireless carriers offer the same LTE-Advanced features as AT&T’s “5G E” network and that “currently, there are no 5G-enabled mobile phones or tablets available for sale or lease to consumers.”
“AT&T’s ‘5G E’ network is not, in fact, a 5G wireless network, nor does AT&T sell a single 5G-enabled mobile phone or tablet,” Sprint wrote.
AT&T’s “5G E” is available in more than 400 markets nationwide. AT&T offers standards-based 5G in parts of 12 cities, but its first 5G device for sale is a mobile hotspot rather than a phone.
Sprint’s complaint said that AT&T’s “deceptive” 5G E campaign includes “1) a nationwide television and Internet advertising campaign falsely and misleadingly stating that AT&T offers its wireless service on a 5G network; (2) a software update that will change the screens of mobile phones and tablets operating on the AT&T 4G LTE Advanced network to indicate falsely that these devices are connected to a 5G network; and (3) other digital content falsely marketing AT&T phones as 5G phones capable of connecting to a 5G network.”
Sprint said it commissioned a survey of wireless users and found that 54 percent of consumers “mistakenly believed, based on AT&T’s 5G E claims, that AT&T’s ‘5G E’ network is the same as or better than a 5G network.” The survey found that 43 percent of consumers “wrongly believed that if they were to purchase an AT&T phone today it would be capable of running on a 5G network,” Sprint said.
“AT&T’s advertising is false and misleading,” Sprint wrote. “It deceives consumers into believing that AT&T’s mobile devices operate on a 5G network when, in truth, those ‘5G E’ devices operate on the same 4G LTE Advanced network that those AT&T customers were already using. AT&T’s ‘5G E’ network is a 4G LTE Advanced network, just like the networks of Sprint and the other major wireless service providers, none of which are mischaracterizing their 4G LTE Advanced networks as 5G.”
Sprint said it wrote to AT&T on January 4, 2019, “demanding that AT&T stop its false and misleading activity,” but AT&T “den[ied] Sprint’s request and refus[ed] to alter its deceptive conduct.”