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AT&T has become the latest to (mis)brand HSPA+ as "4G".  (Source: Physorg) 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 mcnabney on 1/10/2011 2:44:43 PM , Rating: 0

The 100Mps mobile standard as a practical service is just not possible with wireless. It is not a technology issue. You could get 100Mps using the 1x, Edge, EVDO, or HSPA standards if you didn't mind having a couple dozen antennas.

The problem is that wireless frequencies just can't support that much bandwidth to that many people. It isn't flipping MAGIC people. There are just only so many mhz available and you can only get so much signal across each frequency.

In order to give a consumer 100Mbs that customer would use a bit over 5mhz just for themselves. Verizon only has 20mhz, coast to coast, to deploy LTE. Sorry, but that would mean that only four people could use each tower. Yeah, not going to happen.

And more importantly, mobile devices do not NEED 100Mbs. What on earth could a mobile device do that required that? LTE will allow the transmital of 1080p content. That is about as bandwidth intensive as any consumer device is going to require anytime in the next decade.

What really isn't addressed in the article is that LTE provides a massive improvement in Latency over 3G (and HSPA+). We are talking about 30-50ms ping times - hell, that beats my cable connection.

As to mobile 100Mbs, won't happen until we need to send multiple channels of 4K video content.

RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By HrilL on 1/10/2011 3:57:03 PM , Rating: 4
Actually you need more like 20Mhz of spectrum for one user to get close to 100Mbps Check out clearwire's newest LTE test.

T-mobile's network also out speeds Verizon and Sprint's current network implementations.

Clearly there are speed differences between T-Mobile's HSPA+ and Clearwire's LTE and WiMax. T-Mobile was only able to get speeds of just under 30M bps despite the theoretical 43M-bps capability. But T-Mobile was using its operational network that presumably was also being used by all of those other T-Mobile customers out there in Las Vegas at this huge trade show. Clearwire had the network to itself.

If Verizon can call 20Mbps 4G than T-Mobile has just as much right when their network actually goes 28Mbps. Verizon doesn't have the spectrum to offer 100Mbps for more than one user so they're just as much of a farce as T-Mobile is in claiming they have 4G. Just because you're using new network tech doesn't mean your network performs to the standards of 4G.

Also HSPA+ latency is pretty damn good. 50-75ms on average. While LTE is supposed to be better how likely will that be once the network is actually under some real load.

RE: How is it providing less to consumers...
By JasonMick on 1/10/2011 7:55:52 PM , Rating: 2
T-Mobile has just as much right when their network actually goes 28Mbps

You're referring to T-Mobile's supposed test: el

I call BS on that. The majority of independent testing has shown actual HSPA+ "4G" to be WAY lower than 28 Mbps.

Examples: -3g-gets-pumped-up-to-21mbps

Date: Mar 16, 2010
UP, avg: 1.15 Mbps
DOWN, avg: 3.65 Mbps hspa-network-and-webconnect-rocket/

Date: June 22, 2010
UP, avg: "1.2" Mbps
DOWN, avg: "4-6" Mbps d-test-results-please/m-p/485063

Date(s): Sept. - Oct. 2010
UP: 0.5-1.2 Mbps
DOWN: 3-8 Mbps

Those were just the first few I found. I'm sure there's many more that would be in relative agreement with these results (and not with your claim).

If you have any comprehensive independent third party sources (other than T-Mobile's stacked "test") please feel free to post...

So by your own accounting T-Mobile would have the right to bill HSPA+ as 4G if their network was capable of 28 Mbps (down), but their right to make such claims without fear of criticism is somewhat waived by their MUCH poorer performance than this mark.... Almost a factor of 5x poorer, in many tests, in fact...

By HrilL on 1/11/2011 4:26:04 PM , Rating: 2
Those are all older tests. The newest one being from September. that was about the time they announced starting to upgrade from 14Mbps to 21Mbps. The newest tests were done on a 43Mbps network.

Even firmware upgrades don't happen over night everywhere. Give T-mobile a few more months and for Verizon to actually get some load on their network and then you can rightfully compare speeds. Until then you're comparing a hardly loaded network with one that has millions of users currently using it. Lets not compare apples with oranges...

By Lazarus Dark on 1/10/2011 7:56:50 PM , Rating: 3
Thank you. I try to tell people that we can never go fully wireless, there's just not enough room. But no one understands it. Wired and fiber optic will always be needed for the heavy lifting. Wireless should be for mobile access only unless your one of those last mile people who can't practically get wired to the house

(who needs 4k video on-the-go?? or even 1080p on-the-go for that matter?? No, we will still use wired for this)

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