Which G am I? Sorting through the 4G Marketing Circus

As a look back at the history of advertising will show, it is possible to create a consumer demand for a product that doesn’t exist yet.  In a way this is the state of the marketing of 4G technology.  There is a bombardment of ads proclaiming that carrier X can offer you the best of the “next generation” of mobile technology.

These ads play to a very specific information age consumer insecurity:  technology becomes obsolete quickly.  If you don’t adapt to the rapidly changing technology you too will be left in the dust.

The power of these ad campaigns and general lack of consumer understanding is evident in calls I receive from users of basic phones with no internet at all worried about not having the next generation of mobile technology.

Does the current state of 4G deliver on the marketing promise?  What is a 4G network capable of?  Are current networks even 4G at all?

Put on your high boots and join PhoneCan as we attempt to wade through the murky waters of marketing and confusing terminology to define just what is– the current state of 4G.

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Past “Generations”

The first and second generations of cellular technology were relatively easy to define.  First generation systems were analog, much like radio broadcasts.  A person’s voice was transmitted through the air.  Interference could create static if the signal was weak.  Analog transmissions were not very secure.  If one was so inclined you could easily eavesdrop on an analog cell phone conversation by using a scanner.  Sometimes conversations would even bleed together while you were on a call.

Second generation systems were digital.  Instead of a person’s voice being sent through the air a cell phone converted a person’s voice into a computerized audio codec and sent a series of 0’s and 1’s (binary) to the cell phone tower.  Second generation systems brought a greater spectrum efficiency and then end of static.  They also provided for greater security in the transmission as the computer code could be encrypted when it was sent and then decrypted at the tower.

After the first 2 generations what constituted a new “generation” became much harder to define.  As a loose definition 3G is supposed to be “mobile broadband.”  The problem was that carriers would often update to newer versions of their technology leading to various improvements.  But what constituted an upgrade and what constituted a “generation?”

Enter ITU

The ITU (International Telecommunications Union) is the major body responsible to defining broadcast standards.  Their vision of third generation networks was laid out in a standard that they called, “IMT-2000”

Some of the key features of IMT-2000 Include:

  • Minimum speeds of 384 kbps
  • Enhanced security
  • Improved Quality of Service

Certification by the ITU lends much credibility to a broadcast standard.  Virtually every standard being used in the U.S. by every company right now has been certified as an IMT-2000 (3G) standard.

EDGE - a standard used by AT&T and T-mobile which is widely referred to in the industry as a 2G standard comes in just above the requirements and has been officially certified IMT-2000 (3G) by the ITU.

1xRTT - Another standard widely referred to as a 2G technology, this is used by Verizon, Sprint and others primarily for voice service.  It is certified by the ITU as IMT-2000 (3G).

EV-DO – Sprint and Verizon use this standard for their 3G data networks.

UMTS/HSPA – The 3G used by AT&T and T-mobile has gone through a number of revisions (and name changes) and is still in its early stages.  Certified IMT-2000 by the ITU, these are officially 3G standards.

Wimax – Sprint’s “4G” deployment, received IMT-2000 certification in 2007 making it a bona fide 3G standard.

HSPA+ - T-mobile and AT&T’s current “4G” deployment is also certified by the ITU as a 3G standard.  It is a recent revision of the 3G technologies that both companies have been using for some time.

LTE – Verizon’s “4G” deployment and soon to be AT&T’s as well has been certified IMT-2000 (3G) by the ITU.

So if no one has 4G then what is it?

4G is laid out in another ITU standard called IMT-Advanced.  So far two standards have earned this certification: LTE-Advanced and Wimax II.  These standards are still in trial phases and are not deployed anywhere in the world.

Here are some of the key features of IMT-Advanced:

  • Peak data rates of up to 100 mbps for mobile access
  • Increase in the supported number of users per cell
  • Scalable channel width (Because not every company has a whole lot of megahertz of spectrum available)
  • Higher Spectrum efficiency that previous standards
  • More improvements to Quality of Service

Isn’t that false advertising?  How did this all start??

When the Minimum requirements for IMT-Advanced were finalized in 2008 there was a lot of discussion as to which of the new burgeoning technologies would be the first to evolve to a state where they could be certified at 4G standards.

The two standards that showed the most promise were Wimax and LTE, neither of which met the lofty requirements of IMT-Advanced in their current state.

The ITU addressed the promise of these standards stating that Wimax and LTE were “generally considered 4G standards.”  What the ITU meant was that although they didn’t meet the requirements now, as the standards were revised they would eventually earn certification.  Their intention is evident in their reports and press releases where they frequently refer to Wimax and LTE as “3.9G”, “transitional standards” and “pre-4G standards.”

Sprint took the ITU’s statement that Wimax is “generally considered…4G” and began advertising Wimax as 4G as they started deploying it.

Verizon hopped on the same marketing train when talking about their plans to deploy LTE as their “4G network upgrade.”

T-mobile had to get a little more creative.  They wanted to deploy LTE but didn’t have the spectrum assets to do so.  The upgrade they were in the process of doing at the time was to a technology called HSPA+ a revised form of their 3G standard.  As they began their network rollout of HSPA+ early speed tests showed it outperforming Sprint’s Wimax.  Their ad campaign began by saying “4G-like speeds.”  After a couple months they decided to drop the “4G-like” and just call their network 4G instead.

Enter the Press

Around this time the media began to take notice and several publications and websites ran articles pointing out that none of the standards being hyped as “4G” met the ITU requirements for “4th generation” networks and their real world speeds were nowhere close to the minimums that the ITU had established.  “Faux G” became the popular buzz word to describe the marketing hype.

The negative sentiment in the media regarding these campaigns came to a head in October of 2010 when the ITU did its first review of 6 different wireless standards for IMT-Advanced certification.  LTE-Advanced and Wimax-II were the only two standards that made the 4G cut and neither of them were deployed anywhere in the world.  Accusations of false advertising were echoed in many publications.

Sprint cried foul, stating that the ITU had previously stated that Wimax could be considered a 4G standard and the media turn its attention to the ITU for a response.

If the ITU’s response proved anything it proved that they are not a political organization:

“As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G”, although it is recognized that this term, 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.”

I would translate that as:

“We don’t really care what carriers call their newest network upgrades.”

What’s the Current State the term 4G?

Now we have IMT-Advanced which has basically always been the criteria for 4G technology and “4G-” an undefined term that can be applied to anything that provides a “substantial” level of improvement over the very first 3G systems.  In other words: every current network deployment of every major US carrier.

Depending on your perspective you could now say that no one has a 4G network or that everyone has a 4G network.  I tend to favor the view that 4G is, was and always will be IMT-Advanced.  If you favor the other definition or lack thereof, 4G is purely a marketing term that’s only minimally related to performance.

What Can I do with the 4G that’s here now?

The newest deployments are generating speed increases, some are pretty significant.  For Sprint and Verizon, their new deployments are a quantum leap forward over their EV-DO deployments, which have been the slowest around for a few years.  For AT&T and T-Mobile the speed increases are move marginal.  We may not see the speed potential of HSPA+ fully realized for a little while.  That would be when AT&T stops worrying about deploying a standard they can call “4G” as fast as they can and starts worrying about adding the backhaul to actually see a speed increase from it.

What you can do a 2 to 10mbps connection on a cell phone?  More and more it’s getting similar to what you can do with a home internet connection of comparable speeds.  The basics are well covered; you can browse and check email.  Activities that require a faster connection such as streaming audio and video are emerging markets for mobile phones.  Because latency is higher on a cellular connection these services still aren’t as functional as they are on a PC or over WiFi.  There is a big buzz about video calling and while it’s available now, it may be a while before networks are able to provide a service comparable to video chat on a computer, which uses the exact same technology.

Wait…I’m still confused….

Having a phone that has been branded “4G” by your carrier today isn’t going to revolutionize your communication experience.  Likewise, if you don’t have a 4G branded phone today you’re not living in the stone-age.  The most recent round of upgrades is exactly like all the other network upgrades that are done quietly every 10 months or so, the difference for the most part is just advertising.  If you’ve gotta have the latest and greatest, the phones branded 4G are going to support the fastest connections currently available.

Speed improvement is good.  After hardware improves; software companies create applications that utilize the new advancements and it provides for a richer experience.  Much of the internet you’re surfing today would not work if everyone was still using dial-up.  First the hardware advanced and then people made use of it.  Eventually there will be a time when the features the average person wants on their cell phone require speeds that make today’s networks look primitive, but that advancement is more likely to be incremental, rather than generational.