4G Is the Murkiest, Most Confusing Label in Tech

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March 13 2012 5:58 PM

The 4G Fakeout

Beware of the murkiest, most confusing label in tech.

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For wireless carriers, though, real 4G networks—that is, LTE networks—are expensive and time consuming to install. In 2010, T-Mobile decided that it would focus on improving its 3G network rather than build out its LTE capabilities. The company began touting that its new HSPA+ network could offer “4G speeds.” This marketing trickery was criticized by everyone in the industry, including AT&T. “I think that companies need to be careful that they're not misleading customers by labeling HSPA+ as a 4G technology. We aren't labeling those technologies as 4G,” an AT&T spokesman said back then.

But now AT&T has changed its mind. Mark Siegel, a spokesman, told me that the company’s about-face came as a result of a 2010 decision by the International Telecommunications Union that HSPA+ could be referred to as a “4G.” This change is very convenient for AT&T, because while its LTE network is smaller than Verizon’s, its HSPA+ network is the largest in the country. If 4G is taken to mean LTE, then AT&T loses to Verizon in the coverage wars. But if both HSPA+ and LTE are 4G, then AT&T’s network looks really great, and its claim that it’s the largest 4G carrier in the country isn’t total balderdash.

Not surprisingly, that’s exactly the line Siegel pushed with me. “If you have one of our LTE devices—let’s say it’s the new iPad—and if you leave an area that is covered by LTE, then, with us, you’ll go back to HSPA+ technology, which offers such fast speeds that you might not notice the difference,” he says. (Even though AT&T calls both its LTE and HSPA+ networks "4G," it displays the 4G label only when you’re using HSPA+. When you’re in LTE territory, it says “LTE.”) On the other hand, Siegel says, if you’re using an iPad built for Verizon’s network, you’ll fall back to Verizon’s old 3G network—which runs on a technology called EV-DO—when you leave an area covered by LTE. EV-DO is recognized as being substantially slower than HSPA+. “You will experience a jarring drop in speed,” Siegel says. “It will be a noticeable difference, and that shows the advantage of our two 4G networks.”

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I ran this argument by a spokeswoman for Verizon, and she didn’t dispute what Siegel says. Verizon’s 3G network is in fact slower than AT&T’s 3G-masquerading-as-4G HSPA+ network. If you’re looking for the fastest speeds when you’re not connected to an LTE network, you should go with AT&T.

But even that argument obscures the bigger problem with the “4G” term. The truth is, the speeds that you’ll get on a given device on a given network are determined by a variety of factors other than the protocol your network uses. This morning I asked my followers on Twitter and Facebook to run a speed-test app on their iPhones and report their cellular data speeds back to me. The most obvious trend was that there was no trend: People got a wide variety of downloading speeds, ranging from 0.18 megabits per second all the way to more than 3 megabits per second. Sometimes Verizon iPhones were faster than AT&T ones, even though AT&T’s protocol is faster. Sometimes the iPhone 4—which has a slower networking modem than the 4S—was faster than its successor. Most importantly, most reported speeds were far slower than advertised speeds.

This suggests that mobile devices, no matter what spec that cell carriers attach to them, should come with a warning label: “BEWARE: What you’re promised will never be what you get.”

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.