What Is AT&T's Verizon Lawsuit But Free Publicity For Its Rival?

To hear AT&T tell it, the goal is to get Verizon Wireless to take down ads described as "false" and misleading to consumers about the scope of AT&T's national coverage, 3G wireless and otherwise. But isn't AT&T also drawing unnecessary attention to that very question of coverage -- which is already a sore spot for the telco giant?

Verizon's "There's a map for that" ad campaign started airing in mid-October. It pokes fun at both AT&T -- alleging that Verizon's 3G wireless service covers much more U.S. ground than AT&T's -- and Apple, by riffing on Apple's famous "There's an app for that" iPhone slogan.

Verizon has been on quite a marketing offensive lately against both companies: AT&T, long Verizon's carrier rival, and Apple, whose iPhone now has a new competitor in the Verizon-backed Motorola Droid phone. But its latest effort, the "map" ads, put it in AT&T's legal crosshairs.

AT&T filed suit against Verizon in federal court in Atlanta Tuesday, claiming Verizon "has stepped over the line of legitimate comparative advertising" and seeking a temporary restraining order against Verizon while it waits for a hearing to attempt to enjoin Verizon and the ads.

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The crux of the legal matter is the maps themselves. In the commercials, available to view on YouTube and other media sites as well as on TV, Verizon shows a series of U.S. maps comparing its national 3G wireless coverage to AT&T's. The AT&T maps show a number of blank spaces, and in its lawsuit complaint, AT&T suggested that those blank spaces would confuse customers into thinking AT&T had no coverage at all in certain zones, let alone 3G wireless coverage.

Verizon did not respond to a ChannelWeb request for comment. A Verizon spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the suit "doesn't have any merits."

"I think it's interesting that AT&T chose to focus on the white areas and not the blue area of their map," spokesman Jim Gerace told the Journal. "We think it calls into question their own fastest 3G claim as the map clearly shows where 3G doesn't exist."

The lawsuit comes as AT&T prepares for the possibility of losing its exclusive iPhone contract in 2010. Apple's iPhone carrier exclusivity has already ended in other places throughout the world, and Apple has long hinted it would explore carrier relationships with other major telcos as it seeks to pump up the iPhone's already white-hot profile. That AT&T is complaining about attention drawn to a common criticism can't be helpful as it looks to stay ahead -- why would the company take away from its own momentum, which according to recent earnings filings, saw 2 million new subscribers added in its last fiscal quarter?

Leave a comment in our ChannelWeb Connect community and let us know your thoughts. Does AT&T have anything to gain here, even if it succeeds in getting Verizon to take down the ads? Why would AT&T give Verizon any more publicity than it already needs?