A federal judge today denied AT&T Inc.'s request for a court order to temporarily stop Verizon Wireless ads that AT&T had called "misleading" because of how consumers would interpret nationwide maps of 3G wireless coverage shown in the ads.
Judge Timothy Batten, in an oral statement, denied AT&T's request for a temporary restraining order during the nearly two-hour hearing in Atlanta at the federal district court for northern Georgia.
AT&T's full lawsuit against Verizon is still before the court, however, and a preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 16, according to a deputy courtroom clerk. AT&T is also seeking unspecified monetary damages.
"We're disappointed but still feel strongly that Verizon's ads are misleading and look forward to presenting our full case," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel, who attended the hearing in Atlanta.
A Verizon spokesman said, "We appreciate the judge's decision today, and he made it very clear in the hearing by suggesting AT&T wouldn't win if they move forward with the case. We're glad American consumers will have the benefit of knowing the different size[s] of the Verizon 3G network and the AT&T 3G network."
In a 45-page brief filed Monday, Verizon's attorneys argued against the restraining order on the grounds that the ads are not false or misleading. Verizon said stopping the ads now would "cause harm to Verizon far outweighing any harm avoided by AT&T" partly because Verizon has invested millions of dollars in the ads to promote its phones and network services during the holiday shopping season.
The AT&T motion for a restraining order "is a blatant effort to ask the court to do what the marketplace will not do: shield AT&T from truthful comparative advertisements that Verizon has a right to air and that consumers have a right to see," Verizon said in court documents.
AT&T filed suit Nov. 3, claiming the 3G maps Verizon was showing in its "There's a Map for That" ads implied that all areas of the U.S. shown in white were without any AT&T cellular telephone service. However, Verizon argued that the white areas on the map represent only those locales that have no AT&T 3G service, which offers the highest bandwidth and is more useful to smartphone users than standard service is.
AT&T said it commissioned a study that showed that viewers of the original ads were under the impression that the white areas on the map were without any AT&T coverage, even though many of those regions did have AT&T cellular service under older network standards, just not 3G.
But Verizon argued that "the mere fact that some customers may misunderstand the advertisement does not make it misleading" and included labels on maps of the ads indicating that areas shown in blue were 3G and everything else in white was not 3G.
After the Nov. 3 filing of the lawsuit, Verizon aired three more TV ads with a Christmas theme, bringing the total number of TV ads to five, with some related radio and newspaper advertising.
AT&T objected to all of the TV ads and related materials and specifically the maps shown in them. Verizon objected to altering the maps and opposed stopping the ads, arguing that the maps are accurate and show that Verizon offers five times more 3G coverage in square miles than AT&T does.
"AT&T may not like the message that the ads send, but this court should reject its efforts to silence the messenger," Verizon said in its brief.