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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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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Some background
By Dwayne Bozworth on 1/10/2011 6:20:14 PM , Rating: 2
Hey Dude. Nice story, too bad there's a few things wrong.

You report that "The origins of the mess began in late 2009, when T-Mobile began upgrading its network to support HSPA+."

This is incorrect. The origins of 4G started in 2002 when T-Mobile US acquired a Texas-based wireless ISP called MobileStar to offer wireless service at major locations such as Starbucks and airports. Within a few months, the service re-launched under the name of "T-Mobile HotSpot" with several thousand additional locations, and a national network, it provided T-1 speeds at local coffee shops and areas with high traffic.

As the WiFi technology evolved, T-Mobile became interested in a technology called MIMO, which was a part of the 802.11n standard. With 802.11n (specifically pre-n) WiFi wireless was able to increase throughput using a technology called spacial coding. They also worked with Siemens who was working on a royalty-free interface called TD-SCDMA.

True LTE is much more than speed. It also uses spacial coding to increase throughput and 4G spells out defined capacity requirements per square mile. It seems this is quickly forgotten. We learned years ago with cable modems that it's of no use if you advertise "up to" speeds. If cell towers are further apart, and won't meet the vanilla December 1, 2010 version of 4G.

Additionally, 4G at 700MHz/800/850MHz can't effectively use MIMO. MIMO requires directionality. Running 4G at lower frequencies is like having a home audio subwoofer- the lower frequencies are not directional and you can stash the subwoofer in a corner or under a table. MIMO works by reflection of signals, similar to a home audio satellite speaker placement.

802.11n took so long because the FCC had to clear spectrum in the higher 5.6GHz range because it required more reflectivity and an unused band.

Developing a network that's loud enough to blast through neighbors walls and uses sub-woofer technology is easy. You just need to have one big subwoofer, and lots of spectrum.

To compare, a 20MHz slice at Clearwire's 2.5GHz can provide 90MB/s Meanwhile, LTE using spectrum at 700MHz seems to tap out at 20-30MB/s.

The bandwidth efficiency means one of two things- The FCC will have to clear up to 300MHz for 800/850MHz to provide the efficiency a 20MHz 2.5GHz can provide, or your established Cellular carriers will have to come clean, start using the idle AWS spectrum they acquired and start a major network build-out, quit primarily depending on the lower frequencies because they are a crutch in 2011. All this will be necessary to match PCS providers spectrum capabilities. Sprint, MetroPCS, Cricket, T-Mobile, will surpass the Cellular providers on 4G.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkieK-mRBlk

I imagine 4G has been in the works since 2002, when 802.11n was just a glimmer in the wifi user's eye.




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