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Verizon reignites ad wars with 4G claims

As Verizon Wireless' latest ad campaign targets rival AT&T once again, consumers are left to scratch their heads over whose claims are closest to the truth--if any.

The wireless marketing wars rage on as Verizon Wireless claims the "most advanced 4G" wireless network in the world and takes more potshots at rival AT&T.

It's not easy to be a consumer these days with wireless operators all claiming to have the fastest and most robust network in the U.S. Verizon Wireless is the latest operator to launch a new advertising campaign that promotes its soon-to-be-launched 4G LTE wireless broadband network. The commercial (embedded below), which features a young man using Verizon's 4G wireless network to throw a lightning bolt into the sky like a javelin, claims that Verizon has the most "advanced 4G" wireless network.

Last week, Engadget got its hands on Verizon's print advertising campaign, which once again targets rival AT&T's 3G coverage. In this ad, Verizon shows a map of its 3G/4G network coverage, and then shows a map with AT&T's network coverage next to it. Under the maps, the ad points out that Verizon has 4G coverage and AT&T doesn't.

The advertisements are just the latest in a long line of attacks among wireless companies as they vie for customers in an increasing saturated mobile market. More than 90 percent of people in the U.S. already subscribe to a cell phone service. With virtually no new customers to win over, wireless operators are battling each other for existing customers.

For consumers, the marketing wars can be very confusing as they try to decipher whose claims are accurate.

So-called 4G
Verizon Wireless, which is using a technology called LTE; T-Mobile USA, which is using a version of its current 3G technology called HSPA+; and Sprint Nextel, which uses WiMax, all claim to have 4G wireless networks. But the truth is that neither Verizon nor T-Mobile nor Sprint actually offers a true 4G wireless service.

While current versions of WiMax and LTE are typically referred to in the industry as "4G," they do not actually meet the International Telecommunication Union's strict definition. To be legitimately considered a 4G technology by the ITU, the network technology is required by the agency to be IP-based and use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM). The other main requirement is that the technology needs to support peak download speeds of 100Mbps. The current flavors of LTE and WiMax are not that fast. And neither is the technology T-Mobile is using, which is called HSPA+.

That said, these upgraded networks are faster than the current generation of 3G wireless services. Average 3G services offer between 700Kbps and 1.5Mbps. Sprint's WiMax service, built by Clearwire, offers average download speeds of around 6Mbps, Sprint has said. And Verizon claims that tests indicate it is getting download speeds of between 6Mbps and 12Mbps on its precommercial LTE network. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network also gives a significant boost, with speeds between 3Mbps and 7Mbps.

It should be noted that AT&T, which plans to test LTE next year, has also upgraded its network to HSPA+. AT&T is not claiming that its upgrade is 4G. But the technology it has used to upgrade its network is the same type of 3G technology that T-Mobile is using.

So when it comes to speed, there shouldn't be too much difference among any of the so-called 4G networks. And in AT&T's defense, the company's upgrade to HSPA+ puts it on par with its rivals in terms of theoretical wireless speeds.

So what about Verizon's claims of better 4G coverage? Again, this claim should be taken with a grain of salt. Not only will the initial launch of the service be limited compared to its 3G wireless network, it also won't immediately have handsets available that can use the network.

Verizon plans to be in 38 markets with its 4G service and offer service to 110 million potential customers by the end of 2010. The company will likely launch the service next week. But it won't offer 4G service everywhere it currently offers 3G service for at least three years, at which point it will offer faster speed service to 285 million potential customers.

What's more, Verizon won't initially offer 4G mobile handsets. Through the end of this year, it's expected to be only offering wireless data cards for laptops. At the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, the company is expected to launch handsets with general availability in the first quarter of 2011.

Meanwhile, AT&T's HSPA+ network will reach 250 million customers by the end of this year and it will be available everywhere its current 3G service is available. So in terms of coverage, AT&T will have the largest, fastest wireless network in the U.S. this year, regardless of whether you call it 4G or 3G. AT&T also doesn't have handsets that can take advantage of the faster HSPA+ yet. The company has introduced a wireless laptop card but hasn't indicated when its HSPA+ handsets will hit store shelves.

How do the other two major wireless operators stack up? T-Mobile USA, which has also been making some bold 4G claims, will be in 100 markets by the end of 2010, the company has said. And it will be available to more than 200 million potential customers. Sprint Nextel (via Clearwire) is in more than 55 markets today and is adding more each week. Its goal is to reach 120 million potential customers by the end of 2010.

Longtime ad foes
Verizon and AT&T have a history of dueling advertising campaigns. A year ago, Verizon attacked AT&T with an advertising campaign that compared the two carriers' 3G network coverage. Verizon's tag line was "There's a map for that." AT&T sued Verizon over its claims of a superior network, but eventually gave up the battle.

AT&T also fought back with its own ad campaign enlisting actor Luke Wilson to tout AT&T's faster 3G network.

While AT&T hasn't called out the legal cavalry yet, nor has it hired an actor to take up its cause, in this latest round of advertising wars the company did issue a press release Monday stating i has increased spending on its network 55 percent compared to a year ago, investing nearly $6 billion in the first nine months of the year.

The company also claims that speed tests indicate its network is 20 percent faster than its "nearest competitor." And it also claims it completes 98.59 percent of voice calls connected over its network without interruption.

"We're very pleased with the nationwide results of the Global Wireless Solutions testing, which demonstrate that we're delivering a superior mobile broadband experience on a nationwide basis," John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer said in a statement. "Our top priority for the weeks and months to come is to continue our focus on network enhancements and improvements to ensure continued access to fast mobile broadband speeds and reliable voice service."