AT&T's 4G masquerade

AT&T acknowledges that its 4G devices are not fully capable yet, so why do they advertise them as such?

Motorola Atrix 4G
AT&T says it's not capping upload speeds on the Motorola Atrix 4G. Sarah Tew/CNET

There are some angry AT&T customers out there, and rightfully so.

Over the past few weeks, there have been mounting complaints and reports against the carrier about capping upload speeds on its 4G devices, specifically the HTC Inspire 4G and the Motorola Atrix 4G. AT&T remained mum on the subject until late last week when a customer filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

AT&T states:

AT&T is focused on delivering a wide choice of solutions and the best possible smartphone experience to our customers. Be assured that AT&T has not "capped" the upload speeds on the Atrix 4G. The Atrix 4G is an HSUPA-capable device, and we currently are performing the testing and preparations necessary to ensure that, when we turn this feature on, you will continue to have a world class experience. Please keep in mind, software is only one of many factors that can affect speeds experienced. Factors such as location, time of day, network capacity and facilities, can have an impact as well.

So according to the statement, the carrier isn't putting a cap on data (we beg to differ), rather it hasn't yet enabled the HSUPA radio inside the smartphone. HSUPA, which stands for High-Speed Uplink Packet Access, is the protocol that allows for faster upload speeds (up to 5.76Mbps) on your mobile phone.

However, the problem isn't just that these devices aren't living up to their 4G potential; they're actually delivering speeds slower than some of the carrier's 3G smartphones, which we've experienced firsthand. In our tests, the Inspire 4G averaged upload speeds of 150kbps and the Atrix 4G averaged 180kbps in the Manhattan area, while the 3G-enabled iPhone 4 averaged 850kbps.

The issue has prompted multiple forum threads, calls to the AT&T president's office, and one AT&T customer, Zack Nebbaki, has even started an online petition against the carrier for capping its upload speeds.

"The main reason I bought it [the Motorola Atrix 4G] was because it was advertised as being the most powerful smartphone in the market, and I was also getting tired of my iPhone 4. It also advertised 4G connectivity as soon as AT&T's backhaul was in place, and promised the fastest data connectivity on a phone on their network. This latter part has proven to be incorrect," Nebbaki told CNET in an e-mail.

Nebbaki said after buying the Atrix and getting dismal upload speeds in multiple locations, he called AT&T to make sure there wasn't an outage in his area. There wasn't, but AT&T offered no clear explanation or resolution, so after doing some research on the Internet and seeing that others were having the same issues, he decided to start the petition, which had 870 signatures as of press time.

"There is so much misinformation being touted by AT&T that they need to make a public official statement--preferably a promise of support with a date on which to expect it--and hopefully this petition will help them see that they need to speed this along a little bit," said Nebbaki.

He added that the carrier's response wasn't enough. "In my opinion, AT&T's reaction is what you can call 'PR lingo,'" said Nebbaki. "How can they say that they are not capping upload speeds but they will turn on HSUPA later on. This answer does not make sense to me because doesn't turning off HSUPA mean that the upload speeds are crippled?"

CNET asked AT&T when it would enable HSUPA and why the issue wasn't made clear to customers from the beginning, but an AT&T representative said it wasn't commenting on the situation beyond what was stated above.

Earlier today, PC Mag posted a story saying that AT&T is shamelessly lying about 4G, and they're right. Though the devices are technically 4G capable, the fact is that they're not capable right now and the carrier's advertising fails to mention this minor detail.

With heavy competition among the carriers, the definition of 4G has been muddied, but at least, with T-Mobile and Sprint, we're actually seeing faster data speeds on their 4G devices.

It would have been one thing if AT&T was forthright from the get-go. I'm guessing customers would have been a little more understanding had AT&T said that the feature would be enabled in the future because the Motorola Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G are great devices even without 4G, but now they just look shady.

For Nebbaki's part, he says he hopes that AT&T will provide a reason for its actions and make a public commitment to turning on HSUPA on its 4G devices in a reasonable time frame. We're hoping for the same.

About the author

Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

 

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