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Congresswoman wants carriers to come clean on 4G

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduces bill requiring wireless operators to provide more information about the speed, reliability, and coverage of their 4G service at the point of sale to clear up confusion.

Confused about which 4G wireless broadband service really is the fastest? U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) wants wireless operators to disclose the true speeds of their self-proclaimed "4G" services.

The congresswoman today introduced a billed called the "Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act," which, if passed, would require carriers to inform consumers at the point of sale of the minimum data speeds, network reliability, and coverage of their advertised 4G services.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.)

"Consumers deserve to know exactly what they're getting for their money when they sign-up for a 4G data plan," Eshoo, said in a statement. "My legislation is simple--it will establish guidelines for understanding what 4G speed really is, and ensure that consumers have all the information they need to make an informed decision."

Wireless operators say it's difficult to say exactly what the download speed will be for an individual consumer, because the speeds depend on various factors. As a result, their industry association opposes the proposed legislation.

"We are concerned that the bill proposes to add a new layer of regulation to a new and exciting set of services, while ignoring the fact that wireless is an inherently complex and dynamic environment in which network speeds can vary depending on a wide variety of factors," Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA said in a statement.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates applauded the proposed bill.

"This legislation will empower consumers to make more informed decisions on their choice of wireless service," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge said in a statement. "This increased transparency within the mobile space will enable consumers to better understand a product before committing to a lengthy contract with a particular provider."

Indeed, consumers are confused about what 4G really means. And it's no surprise given that all four of the major U.S. wireless carriers are calling their faster wireless networks 4G, but the truth is that none of these networks meets the International Telecommunication Union's specifications for 4G, which requires a true 4G technology to offer download speeds of 100Mbps on mobile devices.

But that hasn't stopped carriers from using the term. Sprint Nextel was the first to call its WiMax service 4G. And Verizon Wireless followed with the launch of its network that uses a technology called LTE or Long Term Evolution. While implementations of WiMax and LTE today don't meet ITU specifications for 4G, these two technologies are acknowledged forerunners to true 4G technologies.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile and now AT&T have been aggressively marketing faster implementations of their 3G technology, HSPA+, as 4G.

Speeds of these networks vary greatly. But they're all faster than the previous 3G networks. For example, average 3G data rates range in speed between 500Kbps to 1.9Mbps. Sprint Nextel claims its WiMax service, which uses Clearwire's network, offers average download speeds between 3Mbps and 6Mbps. Verizon claims its LTE network offers average download speeds between 6Mbps and 12Mbps. T-Mobile claims its HSPA+ network offers average download speeds between 3Mbps and 7Mbps. AT&T has refused to provide average download speeds of its 3G wireless or its supposed 4G wireless service.

Each of the carriers, with the exception of AT&T, have been forthcoming about the average speeds of their networks. But in fairness to these carriers, nailing down actual speeds is difficult, because there are several factors involved. So while most operators will disclose average speeds, they are only averages. Some subscribers may experience faster download speeds while others experience slower ones.

Why is there so much variation? Wireless is a shared medium, which means that the more crowded the network is, the slower the performance for individual subscribers. In essence, if you have more people using the resource, there is less of it to go around. Wireless speeds also slow down over longer distances. So the closer a user is to a cell site, the faster his or her network connection is likely to be.

What this means is that the speed consumers experience is likely much slower than what carriers might advertise. For example, T-Mobile USA says that the theoretical download speed of its HSPA+ network is 21Mbps. This is a true statement. The technical specification for the technology it's using can produce speeds that fast on an unloaded network in a lab. But testing from RootMetrics found that T-Mobile did not exceed 5.4 Mbps in seven U.S. cities. Still, this is within T-Mobile's stated average range of between 3Mbps and 7Mbps. And it's faster than its regular 3G service and comparable to competitors Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

Espoo's proposed legislation would also require wireless operators to disclose where they have coverage. And it would provide information about average download speeds in specific areas.

Wireless operators are still building out their 4G wireless networks and pinning down exact coverage is tricky because it's a moving target. Verizon Wireless launched its network in December in 38 markets. Today it's currently in 74 metropolitan areas. The company says it will deliver 4G LTE to its entire 3G wireless footprint by the end of 2013. Meanwhile, AT&T is supposed to launch its 4G LTE market in 15 markets by the end of the year. But today it does not have any commercial availability for its LTE service.

So what's a consumer to do? If you're really concerned that you are getting the fastest 4G speeds, you need to do a little homework.

  • Check out coverage maps online, which are available from each of the four major wireless carriers. Before you buy a device, compare coverage maps.
  • Ask sales people in the store which technology the networks are using and what the average speeds are. Also ask them if there is coverage available where you live and work. Compare this with the information you've gotten from doing your homework.
  • Ask people you know who already subscribe to each service what they think. Try to find people who live, work and use their 4G service in places where you'll likely use your service. That's likely the best indication of how the service will perform for you.

Here are links to each carrier's 4G coverage maps:

Verizon Wireless (LTE- average download speeds 6Mbps-12Mbps)

AT&T (HSPA+--average download speeds undisclosed by carrier)

T-Mobile (HSPA+--average download speeds 3Mbps and 7Mbps)

Sprint Nextel (WiMax--average download speeds 3Mbs 6Mbps)