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.