In recent years, bad behavior has increasingly gone unpunished, so it probably won’t shock anyone that wireless carrier Sprint has given up its fight with AT&T over “5G Evolution” — an allegedly deceptive mismarketing of late-stage 4G service as “5G E.” The branding infuriated competitors and allegedly confused prospective customers, but after a settlement with Sprint, AT&T is going to keep using the 5G E label, and some number of people are going to keep thinking they’re getting 5G service on their 4G phones.
The problem dates back to December 2018, when AT&T said certain phones would start showing “5G E” badges when they connected to 4G LTE Advanced towers — a signal, the company said, that those phones were on the “road to 5G.” Badges showed up on some AT&T Android phones and iPhones, causing howls from rivals Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, all of whom offered the same devices without “fake 5G” branding.
While AT&T shrugged off the complaints, Sprint sued in federal court, calling the practice “deceptive,” “untrue,” and damaging to its business. Just last month, it took out full-page newspaper ads to tout its fight on behalf of aggrieved consumers. Now it has settled the suit and walked away with no apparent change to AT&T’s 5G E branding.
I suppose Sprint can consider this “mission accomplished,” with emphasis on those quotation marks. Realistically, it had little chance of outspending its larger competitor in an extended court battle, and given its struggles to remain viable as it awaits acquisition by T-Mobile, it probably wasn’t going to win over many AT&T customers, either. Filing the lawsuit had the desired effect of underscoring that even competitors thought the “5G E” marketing was shady, and generating a little positive press for a seemingly beleaguered company.
What the lawsuit didn’t do was the one thing Sprint focused on in its newspaper ads: actually help deceived consumers. AT&T’s web pages still tout “5G Evolution” service, and its phones still flash the same “5G E” logo when they connect to 4G LTE Advanced towers. 5G E phones continue to see roughly the same average connection speeds as competitors’ 4G devices, and months later, there’s only one way to connect to AT&T’s real 5G network: buy a Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot. To do that, you must be (1) a business, (2) in one of 19 cities with partial 5G service, and (3) approved for purchase by the company.
Meanwhile, if you’re an angry AT&T “5G E” customer, you don’t have much ability to get actual 5G service from anyone else — yet. Sprint has promised to commence actual 5G service in four cities next month, followed by five more in June. That service should commence with LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G smartphone and HTC 5G Hub hotspot, though the V50 was recently delayed in South Korea. By comparison, Verizon has mobile 5G service in only two cities, and T-Mobile’s 5G rollout looks likely to begin at the second half of the year, assuming devices are available.
Apart from state or federal regulators chasing AT&T over the branding, the only way consumers will actually be helped at this point is to spread education as to what 5G actually means. And within a year or two, this controversy probably won’t matter at all: Real 5G will be everywhere, and this situation will just become a footnote in the new technology’s otherwise impressive march from concept to reality.