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AT&T and Sprint’s 5G Legal Dispute Illustrates the Ways of Wireless

In the race to the next generation of connectivity, lines are getting blurred—or ignored.

Let’s take first things first: Regardless of what your phone might be telling you, you aren’t on 5G yet. It’s not possible. Most of the equipment isn’t up, and even if the infrastructure and ubiquitous small-cell antennas were in place, you wouldn’t be on 5G. The phones we own don’t support it.

Why is it necessary to spell such things out? Well, earlier this year, some AT&T customers noticed that up in the corner of their phone, there was a little digital energy jolt; it said “5GE.” The “E,” which popped up for Android and iPhone users in certain areas who had recently updated their operating systems, could reasonably stand for “Except not.” (It actually stands for “Evolution.”) When the icon popped up, nothing about the service had changed. They had the same advanced 4G LTE speeds they did prior to update.

The other carriers weren’t happy. “@ATT should be ashamed of themselves!” tweeted T-Mobile Chief Executive John Legere. “Slapping ‘5GE’ on something that is actually LTE is like putting an extra 0 on a $10 bill and calling it $100 bill!” He went on to call AT&T’s maneuver a “FLAT OUT LIE,” before turning his attention to Verizon, which has a “5G Home” service. The official standards for what actually constitutes 5G aren’t expected until later this year.

T-Mobile’s battery mate and pending merger partner, Sprint, took the complaints a step further. On Feb. 7, the company filed a claim in federal court seeking to stop AT&T from using the 5GE label. Sprint argues that putting “5G” in the corner of a phone, even if it’s accompanied by an “E,” signals to consumers that they’ve stepped into the exciting next generation of wireless.

The company asserts that AT&T is deceiving customers, too, by using 5GE branding in commercials and other ads. The branding falsely tells consumers that they’re on a more advanced network than any other carrier can currently offer, says Sprint. Meanwhile, AT&T says it’s along an evolutionary path from 4G to 5G, with CEO Randall Stephenson explaining to Fox Business that 5GE is merely a stone along that path.

This isn’t a new game. The same questionable labeling strategy popped up all the way back in 2010, during the early stages of the changeover from 3G to 4G. Back then, Sprint and T-Mobile were out in front, deeming their networks 4G before the standards were in place to define these things. AT&T and Verizon followed suit.

It feels natural that these sorts of disputes would become common within the saturated telecom market, where smart-phone users are nearly as common as internet users. Market pressures are what they are. When there aren’t any new consumers to go after, companies have to do whatever they can to increase value for shareholders. That’s why crazy campaigns pop up where one company will buy you out of your contract with the next. It’s why telecom is becoming a dated word, as those companies move into entertainment, AT&T the most aggressively, having added DirecTV and Time Warner to the tool belt. And it’s why these races to the next generation of wireless become so crucial, and then lines get blurred—or ignored.

“The first wireless service providers to offer customers the ability to connect their mobile phones and tablets directly to a mobile 5G network can expect significant growth in customers and retention of existing customers,” Sprint says in its claim.

That could be true—with an asterisk.

The carriers that are lagging behind might just call their services 5G anyway.