Has '4G' lost its meaning?

All four major U.S. wireless carriers say they offer 4G wireless broadband services. But none of their networks meets the standard requirements.

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
8 min read

Wireless carriers in the U.S. have turned 4G into a meaningless marketing term, and standards purists are none too pleased about it.

With good reason: 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.

Top on the list is the speed requirement. The ITU defines 4G or IMT-Advanced as technology that offers download speeds of 100Mbps on mobile devices or 1Gbps on fixed wireless connections. The technologies used by the four major carriers in the U.S. today aren't as fast as that.

T-Mobile 4G
At CES 2011 earlier this month, T-Mobile was all fired up about 4G. Josh Miller/CNET

This problem of mislabeling network technologies wasn't an issue when the industry moved from 2G wireless networks to 3G wireless networks, because the criteria for those networks were clearly defined. And the world's wireless carriers and device makers followed the criteria in defining and marketing their services and products.

As the industry moves to its next evolution, the ITU has once again defined the new requirements. The group has worked since 2002 on developing these criteria, soliciting input throughout the industry. But this time, some of the most influential wireless operators have chosen to ignore the ITU's specifications and instead are pushing forward with their own marketing labels.

For standards purists, the fact that carriers are doing this and the fact that the ITU has not done anything to clear up the confusion is unfortunate, since these 4G marketing wars are confusing customers.

"The term 4G is basically meaningless," said Dan Warren, senior director of technology for the GSM Association, an industry group that represents the interests of mobile operators in 219 countries. "It's not a term that anyone could use with a straight face to refer to anything technical. It's a marketing term that means different things to different people."

While some might protest that a label is just a label, Warren argues that labels and standards defined by organizations such as the ITU are important for growing new services and setting consumer expectations.

"The people who suffer from this are the consumers, who are confused," he said. "The operators use this term interchangeably to refer to different technologies that are incompatible. Customers are confused because they think they can compare the networks like for like. But they can't."

How did we get here?
In October, the ITU officially designated two technologies as 4G: LTE-Advanced and WiMaxMAN-Advanced. But at the time it did not specifically refer to precursors to these technologies, which are now being deployed by U.S. carriers Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, as 4G.

Sprint Nextel and its partner Clearwire, which is building the nationwide WiMax network, had been marketing their next-generation wireless as 4G for more than two years when the ITU officially defined 4G. Verizon Wireless, which bought a nationwide license of 700MHz spectrum to build its next-generation wireless network using a technology called LTE, answered Sprint's marketing call and referred to its new network as 4G.

In defense of both Verizon and Sprint, these companies began marketing and referring to their wireless networks as 4G before the standards were officially defined. Still, the speed requirements were well known, and the current flavors of LTE and WiMax that Verizon and Sprint are using are not able to fulfill these requirements.

Again the download requirement of a mobile service under the 4G spec is 100Mbps. Verizon claims its LTE service offers average download speeds of between 6Mbps and 12Mbps, while Sprint claims its network can get average download speeds of between 3Mbps and 6Mbps. While these services do not meet the ITU's standards in terms of speeds, they are at least precursors to the technology that the ITU has designated as 4G.

Then along came T-Mobile USA, which did not want to be outdone by its competitors. The carrier, which came to the 3G party later than the other U.S. carriers, has been upgrading its network with advanced 3G technology called HSPA+ . The new enhancements nearly match LTE and WiMax in terms of speed. So last summer T-Mobile began marketing its HSPA+ service as having "4G-like speeds." By the fall, the company had dropped the 4G-like reference and simply started calling its network a 4G network.

Instead of stepping in to clarify the standard and its meaning, the ITU actually muddied the waters further by sending out a press release in early December stating that it was fine for these carriers to call their wireless networks 4G.

"It is recognized that [4G], while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third-generation systems now deployed," the ITU said in the statement.

The ITU has declined to comment further and clarify its statement.

In its statement, the standards body not only gave a blessing to both Verizon's and Sprint's use of the term "4G," but it also implied that T-Mobile and AT&T, which uses the same HSPA+ technology, could also call their services 4G. AT&T, which only a few months earlier had been critical of T-Mobile's 4G marketing move, jumped on the opportunity. And it announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January that it is rebranding its HSPA+ network as 4G. The company said it would also call its LTE network 4G, but this new network, which will launch in the second half of 2011, will be even faster than HSPA+.

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray says his company's use of the term 4G is justified because T-Mobile's HSPA+ network performs as well or better than the networks of competitors that are also using the 4G moniker. Besides, he claims that T-Mobile didn't start this marketing war anyway.

"Sprint chose to call WiMax 4G first," he said. "And then they chose to charge their customers $10 more for the service, even if some customers aren't in an area where they can get WiMax coverage. So who is misleading customers?"

"Our service performs better than what they are offering," he went on to say. "And HSPA+ and the path this technology is on has the same ability to reach the definitions of 4G as much as LTE and WiMax do."

The GSMA's Warren, who counts AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile USA as members of the GSMA's industry group, was careful not to point fingers, but he said the misuse of the term 4G has indeed gone too far.

"T-Mobile wasn't the first to cross the line in how they used 4G," he said. "But let's just say it went the furthest. Verizon and Sprint each bent the definition, but T-Mobile stretched the most."

While Verizon and Sprint are just as guilty as AT&T and T-Mobile of misusing the 4G term, standards experts say those companies' claims are somewhat more justifiable, given that the technologies they're using are on the path toward true 4G certification from the ITU.

"Never anywhere on the planet have I ever heard of any version of HSPA being referred to as 4G," said Perry LaForge, founder, executive director, and chairman of the CDMA Development Group (CDG), a trade association that promotes the use of CDMA cellular technology around the world. "In general, the industry looked at LTE and WiMax as the two 4G approaches. And the ITU was going through the process. Then this marketing stuff cropped up."

2G to 3G--a smooth transition
LaForge and Warren say these same issues did not occur during the industry's transition from 2G to 3G. For one, specifications for 3G were clearly defined. And Warren said that the experience and capabilities that 3G offered were very different from what was offered on 2G networks.

Warren said that 2G networks were all about voice services. And 3G networks were introduced to offer cell phone users the ability to access the Internet from their phones. Even though the experience wasn't that great, 3G was still about surfing the Web. At the same time, the industry was moving from TDM technology to CDMA in a process at the ITU associated with IMT-2000.

The move toward LTE and WiMax is part of yet another major technology shift as networking technologies evolve to something known as Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing, or OFDM. WiMax and LTE are each based on this technology, while HSPA+ is not.

"I have a bit of sympathy for Sprint calling its Clearwire network 4G, because it uses WiMax, and Verizon calling its network 4G because it's using LTE," Warren said. "The change from CDMA to OFDM is similar to what happened in the transition from 2G to 3G when things went from TDM to CDMA. But when T-Mobile and AT&T started using the term to refer to their networks, the term became meaningless. It's purely marketing--and bad marketing at that, because it causes total confusion."

Verizon Wireless, which is the closest to offering a service that meets the ITU's 100Mbps download requirement, is not happy about the 4G marketing war. But Verizon Communications' CTO Tony Melone said that the label of 4G doesn't matter much anyway.

"I do think it cheapens the 4G designation," Melone said. "(But) these are all just labels. And labels don't really matter all that much to consumers. They are more interested in the experience they can get from the network. And on LTE they will be getting a significantly different experience."

Warren and LaForge, who have each worked to develop and promote technology standards, disagree. They say that the labels are important to consumers, who should have a certain expectation for what the designation of 4G really means.

"It's bad for the consumer, because now everything is being labeled 4G," LaForge said. "The 3G label was useful because everyone agreed on what it was. But that's not the case with 4G."

An ITU representative said that no one was available to discuss these issues. But even if the group was able to clarify the standards, these wireless carriers have already spent so much time, money, and effort on marketing their 4G networks that it might not make a difference. But the overzealous marketing could turn some consumers off down the road.

LaForge added that AT&T's marketing strategy demonstrates exactly how confusing this will be for consumers. The company is now calling its HSPA+ network 4G. But it intends to launch a new LTE network this summer.

" What happens when AT&T launches its LTE network?" he asked. "Will they call it 5G? How will they differentiate the LTE network from HSPA+? "

Correction 8:30 a.m. PT: AT&T plans to call its LTE network 4G. A previous version of the story said AT&T had not specified what it would call the LTE network.