AT&T Won't Stop Lying About 'Fake 5G'

from the zero-actual-oversight dept

Big wireless carriers haven't been exactly honest when it comes to the looming fifth-generation wireless standard (5G). Eager to use the improvements to charge higher rates and sell new gear, carriers and network vendors are dramatically over-hyping where the service is actually available, and what it can actually do. Some, like AT&T, have gone so far as to actively mislead customers by pretending that its existing 4G networks are actually 5G. AT&T took this to the next level last year by issuing phone updates that changed the 4G icon to "5GE" on customer phones, despite the fact that actual 5G isn't really available.

Sprint sued AT&T last year for being misleading, but the suit was settled (likely so Sprint could focus on its merger with T-Mobile) without much coming of it. AT&T's competitors also complained via the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division (NAD), which is a "self-regulatory" system designed to help companies settle disputes without the involvement of regulators. After a year of bickering and appeals, NARB (the enforcement arm of NAD) finally ruled last week that the practice was misleading and the ads should be discontinued:

"Agreeing with NAD’s findings and recommendations, the NARB panel determined that both claims will mislead reasonable consumers into believing that AT&T is offering a 5G network and recommended that the claims be discontinued. At NAD and on appeal, it was not disputed that the AT&T network is not a 5G network. The NARB Panel agreed with NAD’s analysis and concluded that the term “Evolution” is not likely to alert consumers to the fact that the service is not 5G. The Panel noted that the current prevalent technology in wireless is 4G LTE, and LTE stands for “evolution.” Thus, consumers may well interpret “Evolution” in the challenged claims as signifying that AT&T’s technology has already evolved into 5G."

AT&T says it will stop using the ads (months after they'd already aired), but there's no indication that AT&T will stop using the fake 5G icon on user phones, because the icons themselves aren't technically ads:

"But AT&T said the NARB's recommendation only applies to its advertising and therefore will not affect the one element that really matters: Its service icon..."

Again, such "self regulatory" systems are usually designed to pre-empt actual, tough actual regulatory enforcement, often to the detriment of confused consumers and the truth. I've lost track of the times over the last decade NAD doled out a dainty wrist slap months or years after the misleading advertisements have aired, be they false claims of nationwide wireless coverage or bogus ISP claims about the availability of fiber. With the FCC all but an absentee landlord in the Trump era, there's simply no accountability for misleading your customers provided you're even marginally clever about it.

In this case, AT&T can keep pretending its 4G network is 5G, right up until actual 5G is made available to those customers. But the industry's efforts to misrepresent where 5G is and what it can do have a major downside the industry has chosen to ignore: it "teaches" consumers to associate 5G not with better service, but with hype and disappointment. And with studies showing that US 5G is actually far slower and spottier than many overseas deployments, there's going to be a lot of disappointment to go around.

Filed Under: 5g, advertising, fake 5g, truth in advertising
Companies: at&t, better business bureau


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2020 @ 7:14am

    Regulatory Capture

    If this country didn't have a major problem with regulatory capture, this wouldn't be an issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2020 @ 8:22am

    AT&T Won't Stop Lying

    AT&T Won't Stop Lying

    The title could just as truthfully have stopped there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 27 May 2020 @ 8:24am

    Not Too Late

    The AT&T 5GE ads may have already run, but I say it's not too late to do some counter-marketing. Suppose we could crowd-fund an advertising campaign that says "If you see 5GE on your phone, then it's fake 5G", I bet the negative publicity would make AT&T drop it really fast.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TasMot (profile), 27 May 2020 @ 9:02am

    This Will Probably Come Back to Bite Them Later

    So, I'm a fictional AT&T customer. I have my little AT&T phone in hand and I decide it's time to get a new phone. I walk into the AT&T shop and start looking at phones. The salesperson starts touting the WONDERS of 5G, it is so fast, it will cure cancer, it will auto-magically drive your car for you. And, here is our newest most wonderfullest 5G phone for just an extra million $$$ a month you can be one of the few that actually access the 5G network. And said customer looks at their current phone at the 5G symbol on it, and the "other" phone they were looking at and sees that it also says 5G on it, and so then says to the sales rep, I'll take this cheaper one and not pay extra for that 5G phone and plan because "SEEEEE" I already have 5G and it is not faster and this here cheaper phone also gets 5G and is a lot cheaper. Give me the cheaper phone and plan please. NOOOO, stop lying to me about how much better that 5G phone is, "SEEEEE" this one has 5G also, I'll take this cheaper one and the cheaper phone.

    Why on earth would they want to convince their current customers they already have 5G? There's no need to upgrade if the customer already has it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 27 May 2020 @ 9:33am

      Re: This Will Probably Come Back to Bite Them Later

      There is a need...
      MONEY.

      its like the 'right to repair'. Everyone says the right things, but I dont see Anyone stating the Warranty duration, nor the Cost of repair from the Maker.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2020 @ 9:57am

    Once you realize that 4g is 1g then it all makes more sense.

    It's seriously not a significantly different network.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2020 @ 10:31am

    It ll be 2 or 3 years before 5g is widely available most people are very happy with 4g if they can get a good signal its good enough for streaming audio podcasts or YouTube. Lying to customers is a bad idea,
    it, ll be hard to convince people to pay extra for real 5g if they have an old phone with 5g on it. For various reasons various company's hold different parts of the spectrum
    it, ll be very difficult to build a really fast 5g network in America,
    The fcc is weak its unlikely to force company's to share spectrum or sell it
    to competing company's who may need it
    to build a fast 5g network eg
    One that's a lot faster than 4g networks
    5g network in

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chris Brand, 27 May 2020 @ 11:08am

    the optimistic view

    "it "teaches" consumers to associate 5G not with better service, but with hype and disappointment" - so for once, AT&T is doing the right thing?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 27 May 2020 @ 2:03pm

    Wireless carriers lie

    Well said. These wireless carriers are lying to us and this should stop.

    E

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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