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4G is 4G… Or Is It?

in FCC/Mobile Broadband/Wireless by

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.

BBC Paints a Pretty Canvas, but Will People Buy It?

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact/International by

LONDON, July 9, 2010 – Project Canvas, a bold attempt to make the Internet a major medium for TV distribution, is gathering steam in the United Kingdom led by terrestrial broadcasters BBC and ITV, along with major telecommunication companies including the largest national carrier BT.

The service, which will be launched under a new brand, possibly “YouView,” in early 2011, will allow U.K. consumers to watch broadcast programs including BBC channels as well as its iPlayer catch-up service, from their televisions via the Internet. Much of the content will be free, but consumers will have to buy a set-top box to connect their TVs to a broadband connection for access to the Canvas platform.

A major milestone was met in June 2010 when the BBC was given the final go-ahead to participate in Canvas by its governing trust, under certain conditions ensuring that access is available to all U.K. broadband subscribers and not bundled with content packages.

The next step comes this month with release of the Canvas software development kit, enabling set-top box makers to start building units in time for the 2011 launch. “We think this will deliver significant public value for license fee payers,” said BBC Senior Trustee Diane Coyle. In the United Kingdom, television-set owners pay a compulsory license fee of about $210, which covers most of the budget for the BBC, the world’s largest broadcaster with 2009 operating costs of more than $6 billion.

Project Canvas has been criticized for wasting public money on just another online video service, but if it achieves its objective it will prove critics wrong. It will bring premium broadcast content onto the Internet, and make this the 21st century equivalent of the old terrestrial distribution networks but with the potential to access all digital content, including movies. Some critics have called it a threat to television, but proponents say it will have the opposite effect by broadening content for TV. The real threat is to the existing pay TV providers, notably BSkyB and Virgin Media in the United Kingdom, which have been campaigning against Canvas. 


A spokesperson for BSkyB said: “The BBC’s involvement in Canvas is an unnecessary use of public funds. The BBC Trust’s announcement is a predictable decision from a body that has shown little inclination to think independently or set meaningful boundaries on the BBC’s activities.”

Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett said, “The BBC Trust’s consultation has been a shameless whitewash that contravenes almost every principle of good regulation. The trust has stubbornly ignored all requests to address our concerns by imposing safeguards to prevent the BBC emerging as de facto gatekeeper of the digital world.”

But such concerns have made little impact with the United Kingdom’s regulators such as Ofcom, largely because they believe consumers should be able to access mainstream content, including the BBC’s, free of charge over all available media platforms to provide as close to universal coverage as possible.

The extent of the threat to pay TV providers will depend on how successful Canvas is in gaining rights for premium content such as movies and major sporting events, currently dominated by BSkyB in the United Kingdom. This in turn will partly depend on whether Canvas can persuade content houses that they can trust the Internet for distribution.

Canvas has deployed the industry standard Digital Rights Management platform called Marlin, developed by a consortium including major electronics companies like Panasonic, Phillips and Sony. It was chosen because it has already been proven to work for Japan’s national IPTV service. It combines flexibility in deployment with security equivalent to current pay TV services, built into the set-top box.

The timing for Canvas is about right, with the launch coming when people are becoming familiar with accessing video content over the Internet via PC. Consumers are already moving beyond YouTube, with other services now growing faster both in the United States and Europe.

In May 2010, 133.7 million people watched online video in the United States, an increase of 1.8 percent from April, with YouTube watched by 101 million, up 4.3 percent, but CNN Digital Network up 20 percent to12.38 million, and Google Video up 50 percent to reach 18.8 million, according to the ratings agency Nielsen.

Accurate figures for Europe are harder to come by, but there is evidence that recently online video viewing has been catching up with the United States. According to Internet market research company ComScore, the number of videos viewed online in the United Kingdom in February 2010 was 5.5 billion, up 37 percent from February 2009, with the BBC’s sites now the second most popular with 140 million views, although still dwarfed by YouTube at 2.5 billion. However people were watching longer form content on the BBC sites, which bodes well for Canvas.

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