Has iOS 5.1 turned the iPhone 4S into a 4G device overnight?

If you're confused by the fact that your newly upgraded iPhone 4S now indicates it's a 4G phone, you're not alone. Ask Maggie explains what's going on and what it means.

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

You say eether and I say eyether. You say neether and I say nyther.

AT&T says 4G; I say 3G. Let's call the whole thing off.

The confusion around 4G wireless networks rages on as the network indicator on the iPhone 4S changes from "3G" to "4G" after its update to the new iOS 5.1 software from Apple. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I deal with two questions from readers who are confused about what the icon change means for their iPhone 4S's and their service plans.

4G or not 4G?

Dear Maggie,
My friend recently updated his iPhone 4S to the new iOS 5.1 and I noticed next to the AT&T logo it now says 4G? The specs state the iPhone 4S can receive HSPA+, but I am a little confused now. AT&T just throttled back the unlimited data customers, so would it be safe to say the iPhone 4S would fall into the "4G" category and would be throttled back after 5gb ? I am hesitant to update my iPhone 4S now.

The confused one,

Dear Sergio,
This is a great question, since my guess is that you aren't the only iPhone 4S subscriber out there who is confused by this switch.

First, let me explain what's actually happening. For people who have upgraded their iPhone 4S to the new iOS 5.1 software, the network indicator on the phone now shows that the phone is in "4G" network territory. Previously, this icon said "3G."

After an upgrade to iOS 5.1, the iPhone 4S on AT&T now sports a 4G network indicator. CNET/Josh Lowensohn

Did AT&T somehow mysteriously slip an LTE chip into your iPhone 4S when you weren't looking? The answer is no. The only thing that has changed is AT&T's marketing. Apple is letting the carrier promote its HSPA+ (otherwise known as HSDPA) network, which is an upgrade to its existing 3G HSPA network, as 4G.

For the last couple of years there has been much confusion about what's 4G and what's not. Truth be told, there are no true "4G" wireless technologies commercially available today. But until a couple of years ago, most experts, including AT&T, agreed that technologies such as LTE and WiMax were considered 4G, and that technologies that were extensions of existing 3G technology, such as HSPA+, were considered 3G.

But that all changed in 2010 when T-Mobile USA started marketing its HSPA+ as 4G. T-Mobile, which at the time had no real strategy to deploy an LTE network, argued that since its HSPA+ network could get nearly the same performance as so-called 4G WiMax and LTE networks, it was justified in calling HSPA+ 4G.

At the time, AT&T's executives criticized the company for confusing consumers with misleading marketing. But within a year, AT&T, which has also upgraded its 3G HSPA network to HSPA+, also began calling its HSPA+ network 4G.

AT&T did this even though the company planned to build a new next generation network using LTE. As of today, the carrier claims its network can reach up to 74 million Americans. And it's continuing to build.

Apple iPhone 4S (photos)

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Even though AT&T has marketed other HSPA+ devices as 4G, when the iPhone 4S was first introduced in October, it was not marketed as a 4G device. This may have been because Apple didn't want to confuse customers for when an LTE version of the iPhone was released. Or perhaps there was pressure from Verizon Wireless, which has a version of the device that operates on its 3G EV-DO network. For whatever reason, the network notification icon on the iPhone 4S said 3G and not 4G.

Now it looks like Apple has changed its mind about the icon and the 4G marketing. With the upgrade to iOS 5.1, all iPhone 4S smartphones will now show "4G" to indicate network availability.

The change has understandably confused some users, especially as Apple unveils the third generation iPad, which is the first Apple device to get 4G LTE technology.

So what does this mean when it comes to data services? Will AT&T treat all 4G services the same?

The short answer is "no." It seems that AT&T wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to call its HSPA+ network 4G, but it doesn't want to necessarily treat those customers using those services the same way it treats its 4G LTE customers. This is a particular sticking point for subscribers who are grandfathered into AT&T's unlimited data plans.

As you point out in your question, last week AT&T clarified its policy on throttling or slowing down subscribers of its unlimited data plans when they exceed certain limits. And in the new plan AT&T made a distinction between 3G and 4G devices. Here is the policy as AT&T has stated it:

"Customers with a 3G or 4G smartphone--who also still have our unlimited data plan--will see speeds reduced if they use 3GB (gigabytes) of data or more in a billing cycle. Speeds will return to normal at the start of the next billing cycle. For context, less than 5 percent of smartphone customers use more than 3GB per month.

For customers with a 4G LTE smartphone--who also still have our unlimited data plan--data speeds will be reduced if usage is 5GB (gigabytes) or more in a billing cycle. Speeds will return to normal at the start of the next billing cycle."

What this means is that the iPhone 4S subscribers will still be limited to 3GB when it comes to unlimited data. But customers who have a true 4G device that operates on the LTE network will get up to 5GB of data per month. So for you, it doesn't matter if you upgrade to iOS 5.1 or not, you will still be limited to 3GB of data per month as an unlimited data subscriber. After that, AT&T will slow down your service until the next billing cycle begins.

Why is AT&T making this distinction? Because HSPA+ devices such as the iPhone 4S still operate over AT&T's existing 3G network, which is increasingly crowded with data users. So whether the device an unlimited subscriber is using a 3G HSPA device or one that supports the upgraded 3G technology HSPA+, the traffic is still traversing AT&T's congested network.

By contrast, the LTE network is a brand new technology and a brand new network. As mentioned before it only covers about 74 million potential customers. AT&T is also only selling a limited number of LTE devices at this point. What this means is that the network is hardly being used at all. So AT&T can afford to give unlimited data customers broader access to this faster network, because no on is on it.

Still, it seems that AT&T's marketing of its 4G network confusing. And it will only get more confusing as AT&T sells more devices with 4G LTE embedded. AT&T's spokesman Mark Siegel said that there is an indicator on LTE phones that signify when it's using LTE.

But icon or not, I think the way that AT&T is marketing the technology is not helpful to consumers. And the fact that it's making a distinction between the two in its data throttling policy for unlimited users is even more confusing. Of course, I realize that wireless carriers aren't known for keeping things simple. After all, in carrier-speak "unlimited data" doesn't really mean "unlimited data." It means unlimited-until-we-slow-you-down-or-cut-you-off. So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that "4G" doesn't actually mean "4G" when it comes to data plan limits.

I hope I was able to answer your question.

Is iOS 5.1 making my iPhone 4S faster?

Dear Maggie,
I recently updated my iPhone 4S to iOS 5.1. And like many others, I noticed that my 3G marker on my phone now says "4G." I read a bit about this online, but I wanted your opinion. The sites I read said there is no speed difference with the upgraded software. Apple just changed it to better reflect the network, but I have to say, in my cube at work I used to get very shoddy reception. After the update to iOS 5.1, I have noticed improved reception. Is it my imagination? Or was there something embedded in the iPhone 4S that wasn't revealed until now? Or is there no speed change at all?


Dear Carlos,
Unfortunately, as I explained in the previous question, the new 4G icon on the updated iPhone 4S is simply a marketing trick. It is meaningless when it comes to the performance of the device. The iPhone 4S still operates over AT&T's HSPA+ network as it always has. The iOS 5.1 update has not suddenly turned on any network enhancing hardware on the device.

In CNET's first look at the new iOS 5.1 software, Kent German and Jason Parket note that the list of new features from the software is actually pretty short. The software update mostly consists of "bug fixes and interface tweaks." Some of those bug fixes have improved call quality, especially an issue with outgoing calls being dropped. But other than that any improvement you might be seeing is probably coincidental.

Here is a brief list of some of the additions from the new software update:

  • Siri now understands and speaks Japanese.
  • Updates to the Photo Stream cloud photo capability now allows users to delete photos from the stream after they've been uploaded.
  • A camera shortcut has been added so that users can take a picture from a locked iPhone screen.
  • Face detection has been added which highlights faces when users snap images.
  • Improved audio on the iPad was also added so users can get louder and clearer audio when watching video or listening to music.
  • iTunes Match subscribers will now get Genius Mix and Genius playlist suggestions.
  • New podcast controls have been added for the iPad offering new controls for changing the playback speed on podcasts and rewinding for 30-second segments.
  • And finally, the Updated AT&T network indicator now reads "4G" instead of 3G.

I hope this information was useful. Thanks for sharing your question.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.