AT&T’s decision to label some of its most advanced 4G LTE mobile network as “5G Evolution” has drawn scorn from rivals and some analysts who claim the carrier is misleading consumers about the real arrival date of faster fifth-generation technology called “5G.”
On Thursday, competitor Sprint went a step further and filed a lawsuit to block AT&T from using the “5GE” term, as well as label on customers’ phones.
“AT&T has employed numerous deceptive tactics to mislead consumers into believing that it currently offers a coveted and highly anticipated fifth generation wireless network, known as 5G,” Sprint wrote in the 23-page lawsuit filed in federal court in New York. “What AT&T touts as 5G, however, is nothing more than an enhanced fourth generation Long Term Evolution wireless service, known as 4G LTE Advanced, which is offered by all other major wireless carriers.”
Sprint said it is spending billions of dollars to roll out a “true” 5G network, starting in nine cities this year, including New York. AT&T is also building a 5G network, which could be 10-to-40 times faster than current 4G LTE networks, but is now wrongly using the 5GE label, Sprint argued. That could give AT&T an “unfair advantage” to “to deceive consumers into believing that its existing 4G LTE Advanced network is now a 5G network.”
AT&T said it’s not deceiving anyone and would fight the lawsuit. “We understand why our competitors don’t like what we are doing, but our customers love it,” AT&T said in a statement, describing its 5GE network as “an evolutionary step to standards-based 5G.”
Sprint will seek a temporary restraining order against AT&T to cease the 5GE commercials and labeling as soon as possible, a lawyer for the company said. A judge hasn’t yet been assigned the case.
The lawsuit came after Apple’s popular iPhone on AT&T’s network started showing the “5GE” label this week, even though Apple doesn’t make a 5G compatible phone and isn’t even expected to be offering one until 2020.
No ordinary phones on the market can yet connect to faster 5G networks, but several are expected soon from Samsung, Lenovo’s Motorola, and others. Nationwide availability for 5G service from carriers won’t arrive until 2020 or 2021, most analysts agree. T-Mobile executives on Thursday reiterated their plan to offer mobile 5G service in dozens of cities this year and nationwide next year, for example.
Executives at Verizon and T-Mobile have also criticized AT&T’s move. Verizon chief technology officer Kyle Malady blasted AT&T for trying to “purposefully confuse consumers, public officials, and the investment community about what 5G really is.” T-Mobile tweeted a video of someone pasting a sticky note on their phone that said “9G” with the tagline “didn’t realize it was this easy.”
But amid the humorous pushback, rivals are concerned AT&T’s decision will have a market impact. Speaking after his company’s quarterly earnings report on Thursday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said he had concerns. “5GE with the right amount of money behind will fool quite a few people for a short period of time,” Legere told Fortune.
Shares of AT&T (T) and Sprint (S) were down 1% on Friday in midday trading. Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile (TMUS) shares were about unchanged.