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
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
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.
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.