With the growth of mobile broadband the availability of 4G is becoming more important to consumers; however the term 4G is being used so differently by each of the mobile providers that soon it may be very difficult for consumers to compare mobile broadband offerings.
As 4G networks are deployed, the definition and understanding of 4G is becoming muddled. If action is not taken by the Federal Communications Commission soon 4G could become simply a vague term for fast mobile access as broadband has become a term for fast wired internet access.
Currently, the four major mobile carriers each support three different technologies and call all of their new networks "4G." This disorganized use of the term 4G has forced the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to abandoned the original definition to prevent further confusion. Using the ITU’s original definition of 4G, only WiMax and Long Term Evolution meet the necessary standards of speed and fidelity. The ITU felt that these technologies were a great improvement over 3G not just a simple upgrade. Nevertheless, the ITU revised its definition and now calls all three technologies "4G" in order to reduce some confusion. Additionally, the union has also considered adopting a new definition as early as next year for services that offer even faster speeds.
When ITU changed the definition, it released the following statement:
“Following a detailed evaluation against stringent technical and operational criteria, ITU has determined that 'LTE-Advanced' and 'WirelessMAN-Advanced' should be accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced. As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as '4G', although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed. The detailed specifications of the IMT-Advanced technologies will be provided in a new ITU-R Recommendation expected in early 2012.”
Using this new definition, currently, only Sprint, Verizon and eventually AT&T have ITU-approved 4G. Currently Sprint offers its customers 4G via Clearwire’s WiMax network with download speeds of 3-6Mbps. Verizon has deployed a LTE network that offers customers speeds of 5-12Mbps download and 2-5Mbps upload.
T-Mobile and AT&T both advertise 4G services via HSPA+ networks but it does not match the technical comparisons of LTE or WiMax. HSPA+ is an incremental upgrade over the GSM networks; considered to be a middle step between 3G and LTE. AT&T plans to upgrade its network from HSPA+ to LTE over the next two years while T-Mobile plans to simply upgrade its throughput on the HSPA+ network. While AT&T has not released any speed details, currently the T-Mobile network provides download speeds of up to 8Mpbs with a theoretical maximum download speed of 21Mbps by the end of 2011. The company plans to upgrade the network to allow for download speeds of up to 42mbps.
4G download speeds can range from as slow as 3mbps to as fast as 42mbps. The use of HSPA+ as a 4G network is controversial because it is just an iteration of 3G technologies that can potentially offer faster speeds. When T-Mobile announced in July that it would be launching a 4G network using HSPA+ AT&T criticized the labeling of HSPA+ as 4G technology. AT&T spokesman Seth Bloom said: “I think that companies need to be careful that they’re not misleading customers by labeling HSPA+ as a 4G technology,” Bloom was quoted around the same time as telling several tech blogs, “[AT&T isn't] labeling those technologies as 4G.”
Consumers are also frequently confused about what the term "4G" means. A recent survey by the Nielsen Company found that nearly half of respondents did not understand what 4G was but 83 percent were aware of it.
According to the survey:
“When asked to define 4G, 54 percent of those that responded selected the original ITU definition: mobile data speeds of more than 100 MBits/s, even though no carrier worldwide currently reaches speeds that high. Also of note, 27 percent of respondents thought that the iPhone 4 was 4G (it’s not), likely due to the naming conventions of the last several iPhone devices: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS & iPhone 4. Additionally, a number of respondents selected slightly ambiguous definitions of 4G – for example, several of T-Mobile’s new Android phones are HSPA+ (the MyTouch 4G and the G2), but not all new android phones at T-Mobile are HSPA+.”
The survey indicates that the current naming structure of 4G confuses consumers - and creates a market asymmetry between users and providers.
The new open internet rules, which promote transparency, do not offer any regulation regarding the labeling of mobile networks. They simply require the information to be available to consumers. The Open Internet Order says in part, “[a]lthough a number of mobile broadband providers have adopted voluntary codes of conduct regarding disclosure, we believe that a uniform rule applicable to all mobile broadband providers will best preserve Internet openness by ensuring that end users have sufficient information to make informed choices regarding use of the network; and that content, application, service, and device providers have the information needed to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.”
As mobile providers deploy their next generation networks, the term "4G" is coming to simply describe a new network. Consumers, however, tend to believe that all of these new 4G networks are equal which is not the case. Currently these networks range from an incremental improvement, such as HSPA+ to truly next generation speeds as is available with LTE or WiMax - but unless the term "4G" is soundly defined, consumers may never know the difference.