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AT&T, Verizon Wireless battle over 3G network superiority in ads, court

NEW YORK — What would the holidays be without bickering between siblings? AT&T and Verizon are swamping TV with ads attacking facets of each other's wireless networks. While the ads stick fairly close to the truth, there's a lot they don't say.

AT&T has been running ads with actor Luke Wilson checking off points in AT&T's favor over Verizon Wireless. It continues a spat that started a month ago, when Verizon started airing cheeky commercials that highlighted how its fast, third-generation ("3G") network has wider coverage than AT&T's 3G system.

Verizon's ad used the slogan "There's a map for that," a play off Apple's ads for the iPhone, which tout the diversity of third-party applications for the phone with the line "There's an app for that."

AT&T sued Verizon Wireless over the "map" ads, not because the maps were incorrect, but because AT&T felt there was a danger that viewers could get the impression that AT&T had no coverage at all where it doesn't have 3G. Last week, a judge declined to force Verizon to pull the ads.

AT&T and Verizon, two offspring of Ma Bell, are pulling away from their smaller rivals, so instead of competing with Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA, they're increasingly focused on each other. Verizon Wireless has more subscribers than AT&T — 89 million vs. 81.6 million. But AT&T added more wireless subscribers in the latest quarter — 2 million vs. 1.2 million at Verizon.

Here is a look at some of the arguments from the ads:

• Coverage: Verizon's 3G network has broader coverage than AT&T's, which is why the federal judge wouldn't stop the "map" ads. Verizon's network reaches 280 million Americans, compared with AT&T's 233 million. By area, the difference is greater — Verizon covers cities and vast, thinly populated areas of the Midwest and West, while AT&T's 3G coverage hews closer to cities and highways. However, AT&T's older, slower "EDGE" data network covers 301 million people and is adequate for e-mail and many other smart phone functions.

• Speed: Wilson's top point is that AT&T has "the nation's fastest 3G network." AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the claim is based on "extensive testing by outside research firms."

Wireless speeds vary depending on how many people in the neighborhood are trying to access the network at the same time. While all U.S. 3G networks have similar theoretical top speeds, AT&T had a relatively poor showing in tests this year by PC World magazine and ARCchart, a British company. AT&T customers also frequently complain about 3G being unavailable.

• Talk and surf: Wilson fronts an ad saying it's possible to talk on a smart phone and surf on AT&T's 3G network at the same time, which isn't possible on Verizon.

It's true that Verizon phones can't handle simultaneous voice and 3G data connections. However, the ones that have WiFi capability can be used to surf and talk at the same time if the phone is connected to a WiFi hot spot.

• Best phones: Wilson says AT&T has the "most popular smart phones." It's true that AT&T sells more smart phones than Verizon, largely because it is the exclusive U.S. carrier of the iPhone.

• Most applications: Wilson checks a box that says "Access to over 100,000 apps" in AT&T's favor. He doesn't mention that most of those applications are accessible only to iPhone users.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless battle over 3G network superiority in ads, court 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 9:32pm]
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