4G: What's in a name?

LTE and WiMax are not officially considered 4G wireless technologies but they're getting close as the International Telecommunications Union takes the standardization process a step closer.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

CHICAGO - Two of the most popular next generation wireless technologies are close to getting their official 4G moniker from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The ITU, which is an agency within the United Nations, is the International standards body that officially designates wireless technologies as 1G, 2G, 3G and now 4G. This week at a meeting in China the group took a step closer to making the technologies LTE or Long Term Evolution and WiMax official 4G standards.

Specifically, the ITU voted that LTE-Advanced technology, meets the criteria it uses to classify the technology as 4G. The ITU also voted that the WirelessMAN-Advanced portion of WiMAX IEEE 802.16m also meets requirements to be considered 4G. The organization will likely ratify the LTE technology as a 4G standard at its next meeting in November. The WiMax version will likely be voted on later in 2011.

The last 18 months has been very confusing for consumers when it comes to understanding what 4G really means. The term has been used by marketers to describe next generation wireless networks that offer faster speeds. But so far the ITU has not officially designated any technology as being 4G.

This means that the LTE network that Verizon Wireless is building and will soon launch as well as the WiMax network Clearwire and Sprint Nextel have been building are not technically "4G."

In fact, even after the ITU officially designates LTE and WiMax as 4G technologies, the flavors that are currently being deployed still won't be officially"4G."

The ITU requires 4G technologies to be IP-based and use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM). The other main requirement is that the technology needs to support peak download speeds of 100Mbps. The current flavors of LTE and WiMax are not that fast.

That said, they are still a big improvement over older-generation 3G technologies and data speeds. Average 3G services offer between 700Kbps and 1.5Mbps. Sprint's WiMax service, built by Clearwire, offers average download speeds around 6Mbps, the company has said. And Verizon claims that tests indicate it is getting download speeds between 6Mbps and 12Mbps on its pre-commercial LTE network.

Clearwire, which uses WiMax today, is already testing new generations of LTE technology. At the 4G World conference here this week, the carrier said it has been testing an advanced verstion of LTE that offering peak download speeds between 50Mbps and 90Mbps.