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A beginner's guide to telecom jargon

CNET lays out the lingo so you can cram, throttle, and churn your way into the hearts of telecommunications geeks the world over.

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.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • 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
Verizon Wireless executives are just a few of the telecom insiders who love their jargon. Verizon Wireless

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.

Whether it's the difference between CDMA and GSM, the importance of backhaul to the speed of your connection, or what metering means, it's easy to have information blow over your head when reading about this field.

So for some light Saturday reading, we thought it would be nice to explain what exactly telecom experts are talking about when they use these terms they assume everyone understands.

4G: Blame the incessant commercials touting "blazing fast 4G service," as well as the liberal use of the term 4G--everyone thinks they've got a next-generation wireless device. According to consumer retail site Retrevo, more than a third of iPhone owners mistakenly believe they have 4G service.

There are three flavors of 4G: LTE, WiMax, and HSPA+. LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, is the Los Angeles Lakers of the 4G world, acknowledged as the fastest existing standard. It may be faster, but be wary of the lightning bolt commercials; it's not that fast. LTE is also the standard that's attracting most wireless providers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and eventually Sprint Nextel--so the term isn't going away. I was the first to report that Verizon Wireless would cover 100 markets with LTE by next week.

Sprint is using an older version of 4G called WiMax. For years, WiMax was the only game in town, allowing Sprint to boast about its speed advantage. That edge has all but disappeared with the rise of LTE. WiMax is like the Philadelphia 76ers: a team with a strong history but that's faded into an also-ran.

That leaves HSPA+, which is what AT&T and T-Mobile use, as the Los Angeles Clippers of the wireless world; yeah, it's technically a 4G technology, but only begrudgingly so. Last year, T-Mobile kicked things off by renaming its HSPA+ network a 4G one, prompting AT&T to do the same. AT&T is ready to move on though; it plans to launch 4G LTE in five cities this summer.

The International Telecommunications Union, a standards body affiliated with the U.N., initially ruled that none of these technologies met its criteria for 4G. But the ITU has since backtracked and has opened up the definition to include all three. Even for the experts, it's confusing.

Churn: The word refers to the rate at which customers are running for the hills and away from a subscription service. It's also one of the critical financial metrics investors use to grade a company's performance.

Churn was a popular term to throw around this week when Netflix decided to hike up the price of its DVD plans, causing an avalanche of criticism and threats of cancellation. CNET found that 41 percent of Netflix customers polled wanted to cancel. Which is fitting, since churn is defined as "agitating with violent motion."

Cramming: It's the practice of adding third-party charges onto a phone bill. Consumers hate it because they're getting charged for services they never signed up for, and in many cases don't even know about. Regulators and carriers hate it because they have to deal with customer complaints. Earlier this week I reported that the FCC voted to crack down on the practice. Yet it continues to exist. Go figure.

NFC: Another in a long line of technology acronyms, this one stands for near-field communications. The technology allows for a quick burst of data sent from one NFC chip to another, and is the key to mobile transactions in the field. This week, PayPal showed off an NFC test at the MobileBeat conference that allowed one Nexus S smartphone to transfer funds to another by way of a simple tapping together of the devices.

Credit card companies, retailers, and technology companies like NFC because they see simplifying the payment process as another way to get money out of our wallets faster.

Throttling: No, throttling doesn't consist of physically choking users, though I imagine some carriers have at least considered this in regard to some of their more taxing customers. Throttling occurs when a customer consumes some maximum amount of data. Once that limit is reached, the carrier will slow down the customer's connection speed, dropping it to a snail's pace. This phrase popped up again when Virgin Mobile said on Wednesday that it planned to start throttling users of excessive bandwidth.

More importantly, throttling allows carriers to keep boasting that they offer "unlimited data" plans. While technically accurate, customers who face 2G speeds toward the end of the month would probably disagree.