Criticism over AT&T’s ‘5G E’ icon that began popping up on smartphones earlier this year and the carrier’s related nationwide marketing push has now turned into legal action. Sprint on Thursday filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop AT&T from using the 5G E (also called 5G Evolution) tag on its devices and in marketing campaigns.
In the complaint, Sprint accuses AT&T of false advertising and knowingly misleading consumers into believing they’re getting next-generation 5G wireless service when really it’s 4G LTE Advanced, which all four major carriers offer.
“The significance of AT&T’s deception cannot be overstated,” the complaint says. Sprint claims the alleged false advertising threatens to harm its business by making consumers think AT&T’s services are more technologically advanced than Sprint’s and altering consumers’ perception of what standards-based 5G can deliver.
AT&T has said the 5G E branding represents improvements that are a step on the way to 5G. The 5G E icon will also begin appearing on iPhones, even though no smartphones are currently capable of connecting to a 5G network.
The complaint notes that Sprint has invested billions of dollars in network upgrades as it works to deploy “a true, standards-based wireless 5G mobile network” in 2019, and alleges that AT&T is trying to gain an unfair advantage in the race to 5G.
Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are each working on respective 5G networks, and all have publicly called out AT&T’s branding, via Tweets, open letters and full-page ads warning about confusion over what capabilities 5G will enable.
According to the complaint, Sprint wrote to AT&T in early January demanding the carrier stop its 5G E advertising and network claims, a request which AT&T “unequivocally” denied.
Many media outlets quickly decried the 5G E icon as fake 5G and confusing to customers. A survey commissioned by Sprint found that 54 percent of consumers believed that AT&T’s 5G E network is the same as or better than a 5G network, and 43 percent inaccurately believed that if they bought an AT&T phone today it would be capable of running on a 5G network.
On Friday AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told CNBC, “We feel very comfortable with how we’ve characterized the new service that we’re launching. We’ve obviously done our homework. We’ve done a lot of work around how we characterize this and we’re being very clear with our customers that this is an evolutionary step.”
In a statement provided Engadget, which first reported the lawsuit, AT&T said the following:
We understand why our competitors don’t like what we are doing, but our customers love it. 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.
We will fight this lawsuit while continuing to deploy 5G Evolution in addition to standards-based mobile 5G. Customers want and deserve to know when they are getting better speeds. 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.”