AT&T’s actual 5G network is rolling out to major parts of the US this year, but the company’s fake 5G network — which it calls “5G Evolution” and shortens to “5G E” when it appears in the corner of smartphones — has remained the subject of controversy for the last two years.
Now, the carrier has decided that it will continue the charade even after the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) recommended it cease using the misleading term as well as the phrase ”5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G,” according to telecom news site Light Reading. What’s AT&T’s argument? Well, according to the report, AT&T says it will comply with the recommendation as it applies to advertising, like marketing campaigns and branding, but that the logo doesn’t qualify as such and therefore can stay.
“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,” reads the NARB press release on the recommendation. “At NAD and on appeal, it was not disputed that the AT&T network is not a 5G network.”
As a reminder, 5G E is simply a modified and in some cases slightly faster version of the 4G LTE standard, but it comes nowhere close to the speeds promised by the actual 5G spec finalized by the international cellular standards group 3GPP in 2018.
AT&T uses its custom logo anyway, putting it in the corner of smartphones and marketing the superior network speeds, despite the confusion it may cause customers and tests that prove the benefits of the network upgrade are negligible. The company also launched ad campaigns claiming 5G E was part of the “first step” to 5G, when nothing about that phrase is actually technically accurate.
The NARB took up the case after a complaint from competitor T-Mobile led the National Advertising Division (NAD), a self-regulatory investigative unit for the ad industry, to label AT&T’s marketing and its 5G E logo misleading. AT&T appealed the decision to the NARB, the appellate half of the ad industry’s self-regulatory process, and the NARB agreed that 5G E was wrongly informing customers about the nature of the network speeds they were receiving.
“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,” reads the NARB’s press release put out on Wednesday. “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’s marketing ploy looks even sillier when you factor in that the company has a real 5G network it’s currently trying to market to consumers as a faster and more reliable alternative to Verizon’s. Just last month, AT&T finished its largest expansion yet, adding 90 new markets for a total of 120 million customers across 190 markets now with access to 5G — once the majority of consumers have 5G-ready phones, of course.
Yet, convincing people AT&T will deliver a superior experience when that time comes may be more difficult considering the company rolled out a marginal upgrade with a misleading name ahead of time and a fair amount of its consumers might think they already have 5G, as the NARB suggests.
AT&T said that while it “respectfully disagrees” with the NARB’s recommendation, the company says it’s a “supporter of the self-regulatory process” and will therefore comply with the decision. It wasn’t immediately clear exactly what compliance meant in this context, as AT&T did not expressly say it would remove the 5G E logo from smartphones running on its network.
The company says it’s already ceased using 5G Evolution in its branding, and it was likely AT&T would abide by the NARB recommendation in all future marketing considering it’s promoting its real 5G network. Yet the statement given to Light Reading now confirms AT&T won’t make the one change that actually matters: removing the 5G E logo that appears on the phone screens of tens of millions of AT&T customers.
Update May 20th, 4:15PM ET: Added confirmation that AT&T does not plan to remove the 5G E logo from its customers’ phone screens, despite the NARB recommendation.