Round One goes to … Verizon Wireless. A federal judge in Atlanta denied AT&T’s request to make Verizon Wireless stop running ads that compare the two carriers’ 3G coverage.

But the legal skirmish isn’t over. Another hearing is set for Dec. 16, and while AT&T says it is disappointed in today’s court ruling, it continues to feel strongly that Verizon’s ads are misleading consumers into thinking AT&T doesn’t offer wireless service in a significant part of the country. “We look forward to continuing to present our case,” says spokesman Mark Siegel.

The legal drama started at the beginning of November, when AT&T filed suit seeking a temporary restraining order to stop what it deemed “misleading” ads. A lot of people have found the ads, which feature a sparsely colored blue 3G map for AT&T and a mostly colored-in red map for Verizon, highly entertaining. AT&T isn’t quarrelling with Verizon over claims about the size of their respective 3G networks; it objects to how the non-3G portions are portrayed. 

When I first read AT&T’s initial filing, it struck me as a bit incredulous. Suing over ads that point out your lack of 3G coverage? It sounded like a PR no-no of epic proportions. Filing a lawsuit is just going to bring more attention to the problem. As it turns out, AT&T has not won much sympathy since the initial filing. If anything, more people are aware of the disparity in the two 3G networks.

AT&T didn’t have much of a chance after Verizon’s lawyers dug their heels in. Verizon’s 53-page response read more like a dime store novel than your typical legalese-riddled brief. It included quotable sentences like: “AT&T sued because Verizon’s ads are true and the truth hurts,” and “AT&T may not like the message that the ads send, but this court should reject its efforts to silence the messenger.” Whoever wrote Verizon’s filing also made sure to check AT&T’s previous annual reports and executive commentary for references to smartphones and 3G – and, oh yeah, the name on the latest Apple device: iPhone 3GS.

Verizon points out that AT&T is a big smartphone proponent, and if you don’t have 3G coverage, what’s the point of owning a smartphone? Verizon’s lawyers also noted repeatedly that it’s free speech at stake, so, of course, there’s that.

A lot of people have concluded that the 3G coverage problem is AT&T’s to bear. It could have been faster to deploy 3G and avoided the negative publicity from irritated iPhone users. If you don’t have adequate 3G coverage to use your apps, those 100,000 apps aren’t really that big of a selling point.

This week, AT&T announced beefed-up 3G coverage in two key West Coast markets, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. It’s also talking up the 850 MHz band that it is using for better 3G connectivity, performance and in-building coverage. Maybe upgrades will get more publicity now that more people are paying attention.

AT&T also published an open letter to customers on its Web site explaining how it does have EDGE covering 96 percent of the population, allowing for Internet access, e-mail, streaming music and other data services. 3G is faster for some data applications, but it’s not as if AT&T doesn’t have any coverage whatsoever in those white areas depicted on Verizon’s maps.

At least we’re not currently arguing about what constitutes 3G. (We can save that debate for 4G.) Many years ago, AT&T Wireless – before there ever was a Cingular – started advertising its service as “PCS” when the spectrum it was using wasn’t singularly located in the 1900 MHz band, which is what we commonly referred to as PCS. At the time, the trade press seized on that particular phraseology. Nowadays, not too many are pointing out that Sprint’s use of “4G” is really a marketing term and not reflective of a definition from an official standards body.

But I digress. Perhaps what AT&T needs is a creative team to come up with ads of its own to counteract Verizon’s. I don’t know what the theme might be. AT&T did attract more net adds in the third quarter and reported better churn. But that’s not quite as snappy as “There’s a map for that.”