The tech world loves numbers, feature-driven marketing, and pedantic arguments over … well, technicalities, which is why the wireless debate du jour is over 4G. As operators roll out faster networks, every press release is touting 4G, but they are all pretenders to the 4G throne.

ITU Headquarters in Geneva

ITU Headquarters in Geneva

The tech world loves numbers, feature-driven marketing and pedantic arguments over … well, technicalities, which is why the wireless debate du jour is over 4G. As operators roll out faster networks that are built using acronym-heavy standards such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), 802.16 (WiMAX) or HSPA+, it’s hardly a surprise that every press release is touting 4G, which presumably stands for the fourth generation wireless network. Only, according to the International Telecommunications Union, they are all making stuff up, pretending it’s 4G when it’s not.

Once again, marketing departments have pushed out this concept of 4G networks years before the engineers even decided what a 4G network was. Well, last month, the engineers finally got together to determine what makes a 4G network. They are about two years too late.

Why? Because the marketers have grown ever more bold in declaring any new network rollout to be 4G. Who’s right? Here’s what you really need to know (plus some stuff you probably don’t, just in case you find yourself in one of those pedantic arguments) about 4G:

The Real 4G According to Engineers. In October 2009, the ITU fielded 6 candidates that could meet the true definition of 4G. The main criteria required speed boosts, but more importantly, new technologies that make more efficient use of spectrum, as well as an ability to work with other radio access systems and fixed wireline networks. The standard also requires that equipment makers provide features that will help guarantee the quality of service on wireless networks. Last month, the ITU declared the upcoming LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced the only true 4G wireless technologies.

True 4G calls for peak speeds of 100 Mbps for mobile applications such as driving a car down the road, and 1 Gigabit per second for fixed networks. To achieve such speeds, operators will need five to ten times as much spectrum as most are using now to deploy LTE, as well as complex antenna configurations (8×8 MIMO) that require some new antennas at the tower and more inside the mobile devices. Some operators won’t ever get to that point. Others might, but it’s going to take four or five years before people start rolling out anything like the ITU’s version of 4G.

The 4G We’re Getting Today.

Sure, the 4G of today is really faux 4G which now comes in three flavors thanks to a bold marketing effort by T-Mobile. It’s HSPA+ network is most assuredly 3G (or maybe 3.5G for some) but as its CTO, Neville Ray, argues with Om, its real-world speeds are better than those offered by WiMAX and are comparable to the real-world expectations of Verizon’s LTE network launching later this year. The key to T-Mo’s experience lies in its spectrum resources. As a general rule, the more spectrum an operator has, the more lanes in its highway it can cram bits into. It can use that to increase capacity or increase speeds. With plans to move from 21 Mbps to 42 Mbps speeds using HSPA+, T-Mo is going for speed in order to keep up with the Jones.

As for Clearwire and Sprint who are together on the Good Ship WiMAX, both have dealt with criticism that their service isn’t really 4G, yet people still are buying the 4G phones on offer and don’t seem to care what the ITU says. My hunch is that Verizon’s LTE network, which also won’t be 4G, won’t have any trouble establishing its 4G credibility either.

After all, marketers pushing LTE first starting waving the 4G flag, despite the fact that the ITU hadn’t yet weighed in on whether LTE met the criteria. The initial releases don’t. We’ll have to wait for LTE-Advanced in about four or five years for true 4G, and by then, it’s possible we’ll be dealing with 5G networks or maybe something even better the marketers offer up. In the meantime, consumers will buy their faux 4G phones for their faux 4G networks and never sweat the difference.

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  1. Come now. Who does this really bother besides tech journalists and EE geeks? HSPA+, WiMax, LTE are all at least one generation (small “g”) faster than what preceded them. We can’t even agree that the G is used in a generic sense and argue about revision number. What if Neville Ray is right and T-Mo’s “3.5G” network is de-facto faster than Sprints “3.7G” or Verizon’s first-gen LTE “3.?” attempts due to bandwidth constraints?

    1. Stacey Higginbotham TimB Thursday, November 4, 2010

      I’m with you. The consumer won’t care about what people call it. They just care that it feels fast. It actually doesn’t even have to be that fast as long as it feels fast.

  2. Lol 3.7G. ya i mean i agree.

  3. 5 years from now? They might as well call it 5G then.

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  5. Steve Crowley Friday, November 5, 2010

    I go along with the ITU view, and the thrust of your column. There is, however, no true definition of 4G. There is no real 4G. There is only the ITU view of 4G. No one owns the term, thus it’s whatever you want. The link you provide for the true definition does not mention 4G once. The ITU fielded 6 candidates for IMT-Advanced, not for 4G.

    I explain my thoughts further in this blog post:


  6. Why not just accept that we’ve lost the battle to define 4G standards to the marketing department, ignore the 3.XG/FauxG networks, and just label as 5G whatever ITU’s definition of 4G. Then any 5G, which would really be 4G, networks will have to meet those standards when the time comes to move on from 4G. At least you’d be ahead of the marketing departments. So what if it’s a sleight of hand? Nobody would really care, and we could all get on with it.

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  8. @Steve Crowley – IMT-2000 defined the set of standards for 3G, and IMT-Advanced does the same for 4G. Perhaps this October 2009 press release for the IMT-Advanced standards process (before the marketing hype had begun in mid-2010) would offer better “evidence” by virtue of saying 4G in parentheses. http://www.itu.int/newsroom/press_releases/2009/48.html

    Either way, the public will never care, and the cat left the bag without penalty.

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  10. AT&T Works To Catch Up on LTE and Abuses the Term 4G: Tech News and Analysis « Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    [...] a bit of marketing mumbo jumbo it had tweaked T-Mobile for last year. See our perspective on the 4G marketing hype here. AT&T said it has upgraded its network almost entirely to HSPA+ and is now in the process of [...]

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