AT&T’s decision to slap a 5GE label on smartphones connected to its advanced LTE network has drawn widespread derision. Now AT&T will have to head to court to defend its marketing strategy. Rival wireless carrier Sprint is suing the company over its claims, calling 5GE a “false and misleading” label designed to deceive customers into thinking AT&T’s service is faster and better than others.
“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,” the lawsuit filed Friday (Feb. 8) in U.S. District Court in New York alleges. “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.”
AT&T started rolling out the 5GE label on smartphones last month, and now the icon is appearing on iPhones. AT&T customers are seeing 5GE where an LTE icon once appeared. But AT&T hasn’t yet flipped the switch on its standards-based 5G network, and there are no 5G-capable phones on the market. AT&T says 5GE is meant to lay the groundwork for what it’s calling 5G+, which will launch later this year.
“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 Tom’s Guide. “We introduced 5G Evolution more than two years ago, clearly defining it as an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G. 5G Evolution and the 5GE 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.”
But those faster speeds are not 5G, and customers today don't own 5G-capable phones, because there are none. Yet.
Sprint conducted a survey of wireless customers to see if people understood the facts about 5G. In the lawsuit, Sprint said 54 percent of consumers believe AT&T’s 5GE network is the same or better than a 5G network, and 43 percent think if they buy a smartphone through AT&T today, the phone will be 5G-capable. Neither of those things is true.
“AT&T is deliberately deceiving consumers into believing that their existing 4G LTE network operates on a coveted and highly anticipated 5G network,” a Sprint spokesperson said in a statement. “The reality is that this network isn’t ‘new’ and ‘5G E’ is a false and misleading term. AT&T is just like Sprint and all the other major wireless carriers currently operating a nationwide 4G LTE network. AT&T’s deceptive ads have harmed consumers by persuading them to purchase or continue purchasing AT&T’s services based on the lie that they are offering 5G.”
Currently 5G is an agreed-upon standard by a coalition of wireless industry players, but the lawsuit could lead to a legal definition of what 5G is and which services can use the moniker.