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5G

2019: The Year US Carriers Waged a 5G Advertising War

From George Michael to Jorge Campo to Rob Gronkowski, wireless carriers are using big names and big budgets to promote their emerging 5G networks. And even if holiday shoppers choose new phones that don't support 5G, the money may not have been wasted if the ads made an impression on consumers.

"I'm certain that this is more of a branding event," said Jeffrey Moore, principal of Wave7 Research, of operators' 5G efforts during 2019. Wave7 is a firm that carefully tracks US operators' strategies and promotional efforts. "I think 5G sales will continue to be tiny this holiday season."

That hasn't stopped carriers from spending millions of dollars to advertise the value of 5G and promote their new network technologies. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all pumped serious cash into their respective 5G advertising campaigns this year. Sprint was running 5G ads earlier this year, but according to Wave7 Research the carrier stopped a few weeks ago.

T-Mobile, for its part, is more than making up for Sprint's lack of 5G advertising. According to iSpot.tv, which tracks advertisements on TVs across the country, T-Mobile spent an estimated $28 million this fall on TV spots to promote its nationwide 5G network. That's a sizable spend considering the fact that T-Mobile didn't even launch its 5G network until December.

Verizon and AT&T have been at it for a while longer. Verizon has spent an estimated $86 million this year on TV ads with 5G in the title, while AT&T has spent roughly $90 million on ads with 5G in the title, according to iSpot.tv. All that spending is noteworthy considering AT&T's 5G service only recently became available to consumers (it had previously been restricted to only business customers), while Verizon's 5G service has been mostly limited to downtown areas in a handful of cities.

Interestingly, Verizon's more recent 5G ads are getting more specific, including by naming some of the cities in which the carrier has launched 5G and noting that speeds of "almost 2 gigs" are "25 times faster than today's network."

Also, it's worth pointing out that AT&T is unique among the major carriers in that TV advertising is an important revenue source for the company as well as an expense. John Stankey, president and CEO of the company's WarnerMedia business, has described AT&T as "one of the largest advertisers in the United States." He has also told investors that the 2020 political cycle should boost ad revenues for AT&T, underscoring the fact that the company's media properties reach millions of viewers on a regular basis.

Advertising squabbles
Perhaps not surprisingly, operators' 5G messages have come under criticism. For example, the National Advertising Division (NAD) -- administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council under the new BBB National Programs banner -- recently recommended that AT&T stop using the "5G Evolution" brand for its 4G LTE network. AT&T says it plans to appeal the 5G part of the agency's decision to the National Advertising Review Board (NARB).

Meantime, the NAD urged Verizon to pull some of its 5G ads earlier this year, partly because the service wasn't widely available. And earlier this month the NAD also recommended that Verizon suspend advertising that implies its 5G network can be used on buses.

Eventually, though, operators' 5G advertising is likely to shift from the superiority of their networks to the capabilities of specific 5G phones available on those networks. Indeed, Nokia is reportedly planning to sell a 5G phone for less than $500, and Apple is expected to launch a 5G iPhone next year.

— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse

Mike Dano 1/2/2020 | 2:12:52 PM
Update I updated the article to make it clear that The Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council are now BBB National Programs, which administers national self-regulatory programs including NAD.
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