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Sprint sues AT&T over ‘5G E’ marketing, calling it deceptive and misleading

Sprint sues AT&T over ‘5G E’ marketing, calling it deceptive and misleading
AT&T said it will fight a lawsuit over what some rivals and consumers have derided as “fake 5G” technology. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

AT&T faces a lawsuit in federal court after promoting what some rivals and consumers have derided as “fake 5G” technology.

The suit, filed by Sprint on Thursday night, accuses AT&T of marketing that “deceives consumers” into thinking AT&T already offers a next-generation, 5G wireless network when in fact customers are still using an upgraded version of 4G LTE.

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“The significance of AT&T’s deception cannot be overstated,” Sprint said in its complaint, adding that AT&T’s promotional effort has resulted in lost sales for Sprint and that it risks confusing the public.

AT&T in recent weeks has begun replacing the “LTE” symbol displayed on some smartphones’ screens with a new icon that says “5G E,” which stands for “5G Evolution.” The company has said the label reflects the fact that AT&T is on the pathway to rolling out a mainstream 5G network, which could eventually support download speeds up to 100 times faster than the current standard.

But AT&T has yet to switch on such a network for smartphones.

AT&T said it will fight the lawsuit. It introduced “5G E” more than two years ago, and “our customers love it,” the company said Friday in an emailed statement.

“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,” it said.

Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have piled on with tweets, full-page ads in print media and other statements condemning the rhetoric. All four companies are racing against one another to field the nation’s first true 5G wireless network, and in its lawsuit, Sprint said AT&T is trying to gain an “unfair advantage” with its allegedly misleading marketing.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, John Donovan, the chief executive of AT&T Communications, defended the practice.

“If I now occupy beachfront real estate in our competitors’ heads, that makes me smile,” he said. “Every company is guilty of building a narrative of how you want the world to work. And I love the fact that we broke our industry’s narrative two days ago, and they’re frustrated and gonna do what they’re gonna do.”

Sprint’s complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.

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