Verizon Lawsuit Makes AT&T The Villain, Again

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America is thanking AT&T this morning for drawing attention to how limited its 3G coverage is. This is something I never paid much attention to until yesterday, when AT&T sued Verizon over a TV ad comparing the carriers' 3G coverage.

AT&T sued over Verizon's "There's a map for that" TV ad that compares Verizon's 3G coverage (lots) to AT&T's (small by comparison). If AT&T had not sued, the ad would have come and gone. I might never have seen it, but now that I have, I am sharing it with friends--like you.

Now, if Verizon prevails in the lawsuit, AT&T can expect to see the ad, or something including the same maps, forever.

AT&T claims the ad is misleading because it shows areas of the country where it does not offer 3G coverage in white. AT&T claims this implies that it has no data coverage in those areas, when it actually does offer slower speed data coverage in much of Verizon's "white area."

AT&T does not want people to notice the limitations on its 3G coverage, suggesting somehow, that any wireless data coverage it offers is good enough. If it were really good enough, people would not have upgraded to the iPhone to the 3GS, as I did.

Look at the TV ad for yourself. (AT&T: See what this lawsuit is buying you?) I think it is extremely clear that Verizon is comparing 3G coverage to 3G coverage, apples to apples. The ad is not confusing at all. (I have linked to two different versions of the ad).

What I would have found confusing is just what AT&T wants, some additional color on its map. That would have ruined my ability to just glance at the map and understand its meaning: AT&T has less 3G coverage than Verizon.

As a smartphone user, 3G-signal coverage is what I want. I had already known AT&T's coverage does not match Verizon's. However, I had never really paid much attention, not until AT&T caused me to take a look for myself.

The specifics of the case, much of which sounds like whining on AT&T's part, are discussed here. As an aside, Mark Siegel, a career AT&T PR person, really deserves better than the company he ended up having to try to defend so very often.

AT&T is now asking a court on an emergency basis, essentially, to help it cover-up its network's shortcomings. While Verizon was building a 3G network that covers the boonies, AT&T did not.

Here is what AT&T says in wants in its complaint, filed in a Georgia federal court (presented as a PDF, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal):

"AT&T does not seek to stop Verizon from running its advertisements, nor does it seek to change the words Verizon uses in the advertisements. At this time, AT&T seeks only an order prohibiting Verizon from displaying, in the "Bench" advertisement, or in any other advertisement, a map of AT&T's "3G" coverage in which AT&T's non-"3G" coverage areas are depicted by white or blank space. This limited relief is necessary to prevent consumers from being misled by the maps into believing that AT&T offers no wireless service in large parts of the United States."

Looking at the map (there's that TV commercial again), it is clear AT&T's 3G covers the big cities. Just not very much in between. Sometimes I find myself in those places and wish I had 3G coverage.

As for not pointing out that AT&T has slower speed data coverage where it lacks 3G coverage, I do not see how Verizon is under any obligation to do so. Where AT&T claims Verizon has hit some sort of "new low" in comparative advertising, I see no foul as having been committed.

I am not saying AT&T's coverage isn't acceptable if that's all you have. However, I have occasionally I am surprised to find the 3G symbol I expect to see replaced by the E symbol, indicating my iPhone 3GS is connected to AT&T's the slower network.

If you are interested in how 3G works in various cities, we went to 13 cities around the U.S. and measured 3G performance for this story that ran in June. For AT&T, the bottom line was that over more than 5,000 tests in nearly 300 locations, it did not do as well as Verizon or Sprint.

This lawsuit is not the first time AT&T has looked bad. It's slow adoption of MMS, lack of tethering support, and the Skype, Google Voice, Google Maps Navigation, and Google Latitude controversies have all hurt the company's image with customers.

Bottom line: AT&T needs to build out its 3G network or be willing to take the abuse that comes from not doing so. Making a big deal about Verizon's ad does AT&T more harm than good. Once again, AT&T looks like a villain to its customers.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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