It seems like every cable, Internet, and broadband provider makes some variation on the claim that it has the fastest speeds.
These terms have become so overused and tied to technicalities that most consumers are likely to dismiss them as marketing hype. It's like when one of the television networks proclaims a show "Tuesday night's top comedy" without mentioning that all of its rivals devote the night to drama.
It's hard to know what's real and what's an overstatement, or even outright deception. That has not stopped companies from going to extreme lengths to proclaim their own superiority, or attempting to debunk another company's claim. In most cases, this is done with dueling ads or social media wars, but in one recent case, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) won two court victories over Cablevision (UNKNOWN:CVC.DL) regarding claims made in ads.
Cablevision was ordered in August by a federal judge to stop running ads that accused Verizon of lying about having the fastest wireless network, Reuters reported. That ruling came just days after the same judge denied Cablevision's effort to stop Verizon from using the term "fastest WiFi available."
The ads being run by Cablevision were "literally untrue and implicitly false," and were likely to mislead consumers, the judge said at the court hearing, according to the news service.
Some of the print ads for the campaign featured depictions of Verizon reps with their pants on fire, or looking like Pinocchio, a fictional character whose nose grew when he lied. The ruling, which Verizon shared on its website, stated in part:
The law, like our economic system, encourages spirited competition. But when a competitor exceeds the bounds of decency by falsely impugning the integrity of a competitor, it runs afoul of the law. Such extraordinary conduct warrants the extraordinary relief of a temporary restraining order. Cablevision's defenses here also prove unpersuasive.
Verizon, as you might imagine, was excited by the ruling, which seemed to vindicate its claims, and it gloated a bit on its website:
"Cablevision's obfuscation of the truth is nothing but a campaign to keep accurate and factual information away from consumers," the company wrote.
The Cablevision lawsuit and its other tactics have a great consequence, even if it's the opposite of what Cablevision had hoped: It's clear, and confirmed by a court, that if you want faster Internet upload and download speeds and the ability to access those speeds wirelessly, Verizon offers it.
Is it really faster?
In many cases, judging speeds can depend greatly on variable factors. For example, Verizon topped the RootMetrics Mobile Network Performance survey for the first half of 2015, but its lesser rivals still equaled or surpassed its service in some parts of the country. In this case, however, which was specifically limited to the Long Island, New York, market, where Verizon and Cablevision compete, the U.S. District Court judge was very specific in his ruling:
The evidence presented suggests that Verizon FiOS's top three tiers, namely 150/150 Mbps, 300/300 Mbps, and 500/500 Mbps all provide faster download speeds than Cablevision's fastest plan, and five FiOS plans offer faster upload speeds than any of Cablevision's offerings.
This is part of a bigger problem
While Cablevision must stop its deceptive ads, this ruling does nothing to clarify exactly what claims a company can make in its advertising. It's likely companies will avoid overtly calling their rivals liars, but beyond that, it remains an undefined grey area.
The Federal Communications Commission should consider issuing standards for when words like "fastest" and "best" can be used in advertising. Verizon's latest ad (seen above) calls its network "America's best and most reliable," which could easily be justified by the RootMetrics report. The commercial also heavily implies that its rivals are vastly inferior, which is just not the case if you look at the data for overall performance on the chart below.
The numbers are similarly close on the network reliability chart, and even the last-place finisher outscores where Verizon ranked just a year ago on the same report. Verizon's "best and most reliable" claim is true, but the visual implication of the ad -- that all of its rivals are offering poorly made products -- is simply wrong.
There need to be standards regarding these claims, or else the public will never know what to believe, and companies will be able to shade the truth, or lie outright. Until that happens, consumers should continue to take all claims made by ISPs, wireless providers, and cable companies with a big grain of salt.