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AT&T has become the latest to (mis)brand HSPA+ as "4G".  (Source: Physorg)

...is NOT a 4G phone.  (Source: Android and Me)
LTE and WiMax are far from perfect in their current forms, but HSPA+ is worse

Those who can use LTE/WiMAX, and those that can't use HSPA+.

That's increasingly the reality of at least two major American carriers' scheme to rebrand an extension to 3G wireless transmission technology to 4G, while failing to meet the standards originally set for 4G.

I.  The Origins of 4G

The origins of the mess began in late 2009, when T-Mobile began upgrading its network to support HSPA+.  That was a noble enough objective, but then in September 2010, T-Mobile announced a new Android handset, the T-Mobile G2 (HTC Desire Z), which supports HSPA+, an advanced 3G technology.  T-Mobile began to make a quiet claim, stating that the 3G phone offered "4G-like" speeds.  Those claims were followed by T-Mobile's much noisier release of the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G (HTC Glacier).  All of a sudden T-Mobile was claiming in ads that it had a 4G network.

Meanwhile Sprint and Verizon -- who were deploying true 4G networks by the original definition of the term -- sat by scratching their heads.  And AT&T, whom hadn't gotten around to 4G yet, but had perhaps America's best 3G data network (their voice network wasn't so hot), reacted in a much more critical manner blasting T-Mobile for making its claims.

A company spokesperson 
rebuked T-Mobile, stating, "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."

At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, expectations for AT&T's keynote were high.  The company was rumored to be launching 4G Android smartphones.

But in a cruel twist it abandoned its previous stand and released three models with "4G" in their title, which in fact could only support HSPA+.  The company added it would also be deploying LTE products shortly.

Why should customers care?

II.  "4G" vs. "3G" -- By the Numbers

Well, LTE (which Verizon is using) in its current form supports 100 Mbit/s downloads and WiMAX offers even more impressive 128 Mbit/s downloads.  HSPA+ offers only about half that, with 56 Mbit/s.  And the gap grows, when you consider that fixed versions of LTE and WiMAX are expected to deliver speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s.  

The story is similar when it comes to upload speeds.  LTE offers 50 Mbit/s, WiMAX offers 56 Mbit/s.  HSPA+ only offers 22 Mbit/s.

Now the proponents of HSPA+ may point out that the technology offers an order of magnitude (at least) increase in speed over traditional 3G.  Thus it's closer to 4G than 3G in a way.  But it's still not what was originally promised with 4G.

And the story is even more complex than that.  LTE and WiMAX were designed with core objectives of improving power efficiency and wireless spectrum usage efficiency.  By contrast HSPA+ operates much more like traditional HSPA/CDMA/etc. 3G technology.  This is showcased by the fact that HSPA+ can be implemented via a firmware update; whereas LTE and WiMAX require physical modification to antennas and towers.  

Despite all of this, AT&T and T-Mobile are in the right, according to a major industry council.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in December announced that it was defining 4G as, "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."

Unlike past definitions, this one opened the door for HSPA+ a slower iterative advance, to be relabeled "4G".

III.  But Aren't LTE/WiMAX Failing to Deliver Promised Speeds?

A final thing worth noting is that LTE and WiMAX networks still have a long ways to go to live up to their promised speed numbers.  Sprint's WiMAX reportedly is putting up 3-6 Mbps up and 10 Mbps down.  Testing of Verizon's LTE network showed it to be pulling a similar 12 Mbps down and 6 Mbps up.  Outside the U.S., Norway, Sweden, Ireland, and South Korea are all trying to deploy 4G networks as well with varying results.  Norway and Sweden's TeliaSonera 4G LTE network, for example, was shown pulling 43 Mbps down, but can only push 6 Mbps up, similar to Sprint and Verizon.

Still, these networks are generally regarded as pre-release 4G and should be able to be refined to deliver fully on the promised 4G speeds, unlike HSPA+, which is unlikely to deliver equivalent speeds.  

Furthermore, HSPA+ has yet to live up to its own speed claims as well.  Recent tests showed T-Mobile's HSPA+ network to be pulling down around 3 Mbps on average and pushing up about 1 Mbps on average, slower than current 4G implementations, even.  Like the true 4G networks, the HSPA+ networks will likely eventually work up to their promised speeds, but at the end of the day, they're working towards a final goal that provides less to the consumer.

IV. Conclusions

Public relations and corporate management can call HSPA+ "4G", but AT&T's spokesperson had it right in the first place -- companies labeling HSPA+ as 4G risk "misleading customers".  And the net result is that customers will be getting less than was originally promised.

Fortunately the industry seems divided on this issue.  Even AT&T is straddling the fence, promising to deploy LTE, while reversing its stance on HSPA+ and rebranding it "4G".  At the end of the day its up to customers to guide the market by recognizing true 4G -- LTE and WiMAX -- from the imposters, and using their buying power to leave those who erroneously peddle HSPA+ as "4G" in the dust.



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RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By JasonMick (blog) on 1/10/2011 1:28:30 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
How is it providing less to consumers...If consumers aren't being charged more for it?


I agree with you that the situation is a little different as Verizon and Sprint are charging for their true 4G precursors, whereas T-Mobile isn't charging extra for its 3.5G precursor.

The networks may not be duping people into paying extra fees, but they are duping people into subscribing to services with less fees, thinking they will get the same service. To the uninformed customer T-Mobile and AT&T are offering customers for free what Verizon and Sprint are charging for ("4G").

Of course this isn't the case, and it's up to the customer to inform themselves (buyer beware). That's why I've written this article, and why I hope others further inform on this distinction, so customers can make an informed decision and understand what they're actually getting.

As you pointed out, and as I wrote in the first draft of this article, WiMax and LTE still aren't delivering on their promised speeds. But testing shows they are still, in most cases, delivering faster speeds than HSPA+ (which is also falling short of promised speeds). The gap is especially noticable for uploads, which is definitely something of interest if you're ever trying to add a largish attachment to an email and send it from your smartphone.

Some people below have raised discussion regarding Sprint or others possibly throttling their 4G speeds. I finally got to use 4G for the first time in Las Vegas, with my EVO's tethering, and I didn't experience this, so I can't speak to that. But my end point is that one road (LTE/WiMax early implementations) leads to the "4G" promised land in the form it was originally described, where as the other road (HSPA+ in its early form) leads to much less. Either way, it may take several years to get there, but customers need to decide -- which road sounds better?


RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By quiksilvr on 1/10/2011 2:43:07 PM , Rating: 4
As it stands now, I'll stick with HSPA+. Costs the same and get comparable speeds (plus you get a very decent selection of phones to choose from).

Once the gap in speed is evident, (intelligent) consumers will make the switch as necessary, but HSPA+ has some pretty incredible goals as well. I've seen numbers as high as 672 Mbp/s.

I find this actually quite an interesting read.
http://www.ericsson.com/res/thecompany/docs/journa...


RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By HrilL on 1/10/2011 4:02:56 PM , Rating: 2
I completely agree. They basically get the same speeds when comparing the two. All of them have to use more channels in order to achieve higher speeds. LTE needs 20Mhz to do 100Mbps HSPA+ needs 15Mhz to do 126Mbps. Clearly both can perform pretty close to each other.


RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By omnicronx on 1/10/2011 6:50:03 PM , Rating: 2
Well one thing is latency.. i could care less but it does matter to some people it may matter. For example if you for whatever reason want to use it as a home connection. Perhaps if you live in rural area.

I guess you could also theoretically play games as LTE should provide playable latencies..


By HrilL on 1/10/2011 6:52:44 PM , Rating: 2
HSPA+ also has a lot lower latencies than older 3G tech. T-mobiles HSPA+ network has lower latencies than Sprints WiMax currently. Its about 75ms which isn't too bad and faster speeds and less congestion should also help. LTE with 30-50ms would be nicers if that is really what is gets in the real world.


By nolisi on 1/10/2011 2:58:10 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
but they are duping people into subscribing to services with less fees, thinking they will get the same service.


The problem with this assertion is the variable nature wireless communications to begin with. This is why when it comes to actual numbers, they are always prefaced with the phrase "up to".

On a practical basis, I think it serves the customer better to give them a "free" upgrade (service fees wise) to a higher speed service even if it doesn't deliver the same "4G" speeds. The likelihood is, even when all these technologies mature:

a) the theoretical maximums won't be reached on any kind of consistent basis given the delivery medium (wireless)
b) companies are instituting throttling- what good does it do me to pay for a higher speed of service if there is an beaurocratic limit to how much I can use these speeds?

So while we techies can argue numbers- I think it serves the customers better to ask the practical questions:

a)Will phones be produced that can actually handle these theoretical peak speeds with reasonable battery life?
b)Will users be able to take advantage of these higher speeds given the form factor of the devices (cell phones can only do so much given their size and interface options)?
c)Will most users notice/use a difference between these technologies theoretical maximums?
d)What will the consistency of the service delivery (coverage, deployment, throttling etc) look like?

Given these questions and the realities of wireless service delivery, I think duping people by having them pay the same amount for a higher (but not as high) level of service isn't that serious an issue.


By tallguywithglasseson on 1/11/2011 1:06:15 PM , Rating: 3
HPSA+ can be called 4G according to the ITU

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2374564,00.as...

Along with WiMax and LTE. Of course none of them meet the performance specifications of 4G.

And 4G was not a standard about a specific technology, so it matters little *how* the speeds are achieved, just that they are achieved.

In at least one real-world test I can find, T-Mobiles HSPA+ beats Sprint's WiMax.

http://www.phonescoop.com/articles/article.php?a=3...

So if 4G is a performance standard, and Sprint's WiMax can be called "4G" even though it doesn't meet that standard, I don't blame T-Mobile for calling their network "4G" since it's comparable to the performance Sprint is getting with WiMax. Especially since the ITU included HSPA+ in their redefinition.

Personally I don't think the ITU should allow ANY of them to be called 4G since they fall short of the standard, and the FTC shouldn't let any of them advertise as 4G. But since Sprint went down that path and everyone just let them, I don't blame their competitors for following suit.


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