It started this last week at CES, and now it’s already hitting the metaphorical TV airwaves. The upcoming onslaught of advertising from wireless carriers, touting their new “4G networks” is, at best, confusing for the consumer and, at worst, an outright lie. Most consumers don’t fully understand what it means to have a 3G network and at the current rate they won’t have a real understanding of what 4G means, either. The reason is that the truth is hidden behind marketing pushes by the wireless carriers that reduces the term 4G to marketing caché. Every major U.S. carrier is now advertising its new “4G’ network, while only one of them is even close to being honest in giving themselves that label.
What do 3G and 4G mean?
Most consumers in the U.S. recognize the term 3G for two reasons: the marketing of the iPhone 3G in 2008 and the 3G map battles that Verizon and AT&T fought through the better part of 2009. But where did the term 3G come from, anyway? 3G, as you might guess refers to “third generation.” This reflects the nature of the network that follows previous generations of cellular networks. These networks were the first generation analog networks for voice and the second generation digital networks that first encrypted voice calls and enabled the first uses of data of cell networks. These first uses included SMS ability, but 2G networks evolved quite a bit over the years to include email and web capabilities that are not too dissimilar to what people expect on their smartphones today. In fact, this 2G evolution, called EDGE, is still in use all over the U.S. on both AT&T and T-Mobile.
The introduction of 3G in the mid-2000′s marked the first time that 3G was considered a feature to be pitched to consumers. For all intents and purposes, 3G meant faster speeds, less network latency, and an overal more integrated internet experience. The original iPhone in 2007 only supported EDGE data, something that was remedied the following year on AT&T. Even though Verizon and Sprint used different technologies than AT&T and T-Mobile, 3G at least meant something because the speeds on these networks were somewhat compatible. The GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile) did offer more speed, but the difference was negligible and a difference of only a few Mbps. Carriers never questioned anyone’s use fo the term 3G, but instead fought battles over who’s coverage was wider-spread or more reliable. The best example was the “There’s a map for that” series of Verizon commercials slamming AT&T’s poor 3G coverage and poking fun at iPhone marketing.
While the carriers fought over who’s network was superior, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was busy formulating its own requirements for the minimum specs of the upcoming 4G label. The ITU is not in any way a governing body, so its opinion could easily be discarded by any company wanting to call its network 4G. They did eventually release their standards on what should be considered 4G and among all types of numbers, the speed requirements stuck out the most. The ITU recommended that 100 Mbps should be the standard for 4G, an almost impossible-sounding number, since current networks on AT&T and Verizon were topping out at roughly 4 Mbps.
A more realistic approach and license to distort the truth
When Sprint released the HTC Evo 4G in 2010, it ran on the high-speed WiMAX network that is a joint venture between Sprint and Clearwire. This WiMAX network offered consistent speeds between 3-6 Mbps with a max of 40 Mbps, which was faster than anything else at the time, but well short of the ITU definition of 4G. In fact, even the theoretical max of WiMAX wouldn’t approach this more traditional definition of 4G. The same was true for Verizon’s upcoming LTE network, where only the theoretical max is around 100 Mbps. The only technologies that would eventually reach this standard were LTE-Advances and WiMAX 2, both of which are a generation beyond the networks that haven’t even been built out yet. It was clear that people would have to adjust their standards for what they could call 4G as networks needed a way to differentiate newer from older networks. That’s where all of the confusion began.
Verizon announced it would go live with their 4g LTE network at the end of 2010. This network would be limited to just data cards, but they would introduce phones in 2011. Nobody had any difficulty calling LTE 4G and Verizon clearly had a legitimate claim to calling its network 4G. They have since followed through with their plans, and have been getting rave reviews no just for speeds up to 35 Mbps, but also for the low latency of the network, making it “feel” more like a home broadband connection.
Sprint launched their first WiMAX device, the Evo 4G in Spring 2010. There was some grumbling about whether or not this was “really” 4G, especially since the actual speeds weren’t light-years faster than what Sprint was delivering with EVDO. Still, it was clear this was a next generation network, with the potential to grow far beyond what the 3G networks were projecting, so everyone accepted the moniker of 4G for Sprint’s WiMAX.
The lying really began with T-Mobile. Because T-Mobile didn’t have close to the same resources as the other large companies, they couldn’t build out WiMAX or LTE anytime soon. Their response? Go live with their HSPA+ network and call it 4G. While HSPA+ is very fast and T-Mobile was offering 21 MBps, the ceiling for HSPA+ is not nearly as high at LTE or WiMax. In addition, HSPA+ does nothing to improve latency in the network, making it a faster network, but one that doesn’t “feel” as fast or support video calls any better than what they were offering. Since they could flip a switch and turn most of their network to HSPA+, they then branded themselves the “nation’s largest 4G network,” something that had to anger just about every other carrier.
AT&T has already announced their plans to begin their LTE rollout in the 2nd half of 2011, but in the meantime they are feeling the pressure from the other networks, particularly T-Mobile. Feeling their hand forced by T-Mobile, AT&T chose to rebrand themselves at this year’s CES by calling their current HSPA+ network “4G.” Their current network and devices aren’t capable of speeds greater than 7.2 MBps and in actual usage it’s not even close to that, making this rebranding in the face of no upgrade the biggest lie of all. There is nothing remotely 4G about AT&T’s network, but nobody can stop them form calling it what they want.
So, what should we believe over the next few years?
Verizon is already advertising their “4G LTE” network. They are going to have the best, most true 4G network for some time to come. T-Mobile is going to be stuck on 3G+ for years, but they will be offering very high speeds to try and compensate, meanwhile lying and calling it 4G. Sprint runs a 4G network with a technology inferior to LTE, but at least they’re not misrepresenting themselves. Years down the road, they will likely switch that WiMAX network to LTE, but it’s serving them well for now. It’s AT&T that causes the real confusion here because they are already advertising “4G” for a comparatively poor network, but they will be launching LTE later in the summer. Since these companies don’t seem interested in keeping themselves honest, perhaps AT&T will just call LTE 5G. It would be no more dishonest than what they’re doing now.