A beginner's guide to telecom jargon, part 4

CNET looks at even more flavors of 4G, and explains why seasons mean more to companies than just hot summers and cold winters.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

The mobile world moves at a breakneck pace, and it's difficult to keep up--even without the technical jargon most industry insiders throw around. And they do love to toss those terms about.

This week, I continue with the techno-babble trend with a few more network terms for 4G. (Who doesn't love those?)

So for some light reading, here are a few terms telecom experts throw around with the assumption that everyone understands them.

TD-LTE: Just when you thought there possibly couldn't be anymore 4G terms, Clearwire pops up and decides to switch to a technology that hasn't gotten a lot of attention in the past. The TD stands for time division, making an increasingly complex alphabet soup of a name--all for one network technology.

At the risk of complicating an already befuddling subject, there are currently two types of LTE. The one that Verizon has been bragging about is a flavor called frequency division multiplexing, or FD-LTE. The technology uses two different pieces of spectrum, which act like separate pipes, to send and receive data.

TD-LTE, as its name implies, cuts up the same piece of spectrum into different time slots to dynamically assign what piece of data gets sent and what gets received. The only risk is if the TD-LTE network gets loaded, there's a higher risk of interference.

The marketing folks at Verizon wisely chose to skip these details because, in reality, no one but a few engineers really care.

Clearwire was quick to establish some legitimacy for the technology, noting that China Mobile and its more than 600 million subscribers will be using the standard, as will Japan's Softbank. That gives the vendors a ton of reasons to look at this technology.

LTE-Advanced: Clearwire also touted the network as LTE-Advanced ready. So what's this mystery third standard? It's what LTE will eventually grow into, hopefully clearing up a lot the jargon. LTE-Advanced was one of the original standards that the International Telecommunications Union designated as true 4G, before broadening the definition to include the other flavors.

The ITU specified that LTE-Advanced would offer speeds of 100 megabits per second when the device is moving at high speeds, or roughly 10 times faster than Verizon's LTE network, and a 1-gigabit per second connection when stationary or moving slowly.

But if LTE-Advanced is considered 4G, what are the marketing executives at the telcos going to call their upgraded networks? 4.5G? 5G?

MVNO: An acronym for mobile virtual network operator. It's an uber-complicated title for a company that buys wireless capacity and service on a wholesale basis, and resells it to consumers. The most notable MVNO was Virgin Mobile, before Sprint Nextel scooped up the company to augment its own prepaid business.

TracFone Wireless CNET

TracFone remains the largest MVNO, buying capacity from several of the major wireless carriers and selling prepaid service through a variety of retail outlets, from Wal-Mart to local convenience stores.

MVNOs rose to prominence a few years ago, but are known more for their failures than successes. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs even stood on stage at a wireless conference more than six years ago and proclaimed, "I am an MVNO." I'm not sure even if he knew what he was talking about, since the P. Diddy cell phone service never emerged.

While TracFone and Virgin Mobile sold prepaid service and lured in low-end users, companies such as ESPN and Walt Disney took a crack at attracting high-end ones. Both used Sprint's network to sell their own branded service. But they, along with many others, including Amped and Qwest, ended up folding their wireless business as they quickly realized their services weren't different enough from the carriers to justify a premium price tag.

Still, Sprint hopes to revive interest in MVNOs by offering 4G services on a wholesale basis.

Seasonality: The term refers to normal ups and downs that businesses encounter at certain times in the year. For example, the DSL business in the second quarter is typically weak because a lot of college students are disconnecting their service before heading home for the summer.

The prepaid companies, for example, all reported disappointing results. They largely blamed seasonal pressures, since the second quarter is often a letdown after a strong first three months of the year.

So it's also a convenient excuse companies can hide behind if their results are disappointing.

Embargo: This is a reference to the potential ban on the importation of foreign products into the U.S., a punishment that can be handed out by the U.S. International Trade Commission. It's particularly relevant now because EVERY technology company is suing EVERY OTHER technology company.

For example, Apple and Samsung have a pending dispute with the ITC. The ITC said on Tuesday that its members have voted to begin an investigation on Apple's behalf to look at whether Samsung infringes on its intellectual property, just the latest in a long-running soap opera.

Companies like using the ITC because the threat of an embargo immediately gets both parties back to the bargaining table. No ban has ever been enforced on a technology company; all disputes have been resolved before it gets to that point.

Still, the ITC has increasingly become another battlefield for tech companies to work out their rivalries.