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Summary:

5G is still just the merest twinkle in the mobile industry’s eye, yet the blogosphere is now using the term to describe T-Mobile’s forthcoming network. Just as with 4G, we’re conflating technology with marketing, and we need to stop.

I’m a bit concerned that we in tech blogging community are doing the mobile industry’s marketing for them. This week a few tech sites published posts that attached the term “5G” to T-Mobile’s forthcoming rollout of LTE-Advanced technologies.

It’s not my intention here to to attack my peers, but I think it’s necessary to point out we’re descending a slippery slope if we start tossing around the term 5G loosely. 5G doesn’t exist except as the barest concept. It hasn’t been defined by any standards body. The mobile industry only recently began addressing what constitutes 5G, assigning its biggest brains to investigate the technologies that might make up 5G networks in the future.

mobile phone and telecommunication towersI understand the frustration of my fellow tech bloggers. Presented with a bunch of byzantine acronyms, how do you explain to the average reader the differences between an HSPA network and HSPA+ network, or between an LTE and an LTE-Advanced network, in a single sentence? When dealing in headlines of limited length and Twitter posts of 140 characters, it’s easy to fall into the comfortable trap of using terms like 4G and 5G to explain the differences in technologies (I’m guilty of falling into that same trap as well).

But I think we owe it to our readers to spell out those nuances. Otherwise we’re not truly explaining mobile technology. Instead, we’re just repeating the marketing messages of carriers and vendors that have every interest in exaggerating the capabilities of their networks.

To my knowledge, T-Mobile isn’t publicly labeling its forthcoming network as 5G, but the operator has a reputation for this kind of technology inflation. In 2010, T-Mobile relabeled its HSPA+ service as 4G out of the blue. I had some sympathy for T-Mobile at the time, because it was presented with a quandary: Sprint had long used the term 4G to describe its WiMAX network, but T-Mobile’s ostensible 3G network was routinely beating Sprint in raw speed tests.

Instead of trying to explain the differences to its customers – which admittedly would have been quite difficult — T-Mobile took the easy way out and simply claimed 4G as its own. Of course, that led AT&T to do the same for its even slower 14.4 Mbps HSPA+ network. Eventually, the standards body responsible for defining the various ‘G’s, the International Telecommunication Union, caved to industry pressure and retroactively defined 4G as pretty much whatever carriers wanted it be.

ATT-4G-LTE-Logo4G became a meaningless term, and we tech journalists reinforced its meaninglessness by swallowing the terminology carriers fed us. If carriers get their hooks into the acronym 5G, you can bet the exact same thing will happen. Once one carrier succumbs, others will race to redefine their perfectly serviceable 4G networks as 5G networks. An the next operator to gain the slightest technical edge will start bandying about the term 6G.

I’m not dissing T-Mobile’s technical accomplishments. As I’ve written before, T-Mobile’s new LTE network, by virtue of its newness, has definite advantages over other carriers’ networks. T-Mobile will be able to upgrade to new LTE-Advanced technologies faster and cheaper than its competitors. But T-Mobile certainly doesn’t have an LTE-Advanced network today, it won’t have one in the near future and it will be years before it can legitimately make the claim to owning one. LTE-Advanced is an incremental technology, and many of its key techniques aren’t even commercially available to carriers yet.

In my opinion, carriers are already abusing the term LTE-Advanced. They haven’t started compounding that abuse by advertising their current or forthcoming LTE networks as 5G, but it’s only a matter of time. Let’s not help them along by doing their marketing for them.

  1. curdriceaurora Tuesday, April 23, 2013

    An entire article about 5G and no mention of Broadcom?

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Tuesday, April 23, 2013

      You mean Broadcom’s Wi-Fi? Ha! Yeah, one abuse at a time…

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  2. To be fair, everything that is being marketed as 4G isn’t 4G. If they would have avoided the desire to increment the “G” to try to place their product above other 3G products, we wouldn’t be in this mess where 4G products now need to be called 5G products to differentiate them from 3G products labeled as 4G products.

    I’m just hoping that 4G products have an upgraded step so that carriers have to brand that “6G”, which will be extremely confusing when 5G products actually come around…

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  3. Are you an engineer? Likely they (and Stacy H – who made the same argument for 4G) are the only ones who care. It gets conflated on multiples levels – including the folks who violently refuse to buy “phone x” because of the lack of LTE. Certainly LTE is faster than HSPA+ — but I’m still waiting to hear what practical use is enabled by the incremental difference.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Tuesday, April 23, 2013

      That’s the point Brown_Te. Because everyone isn’t an engineer is why we have to explain what these terms mean (or are intended to mean)

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  4. Since when do the marketing folks give a crap about facts? They successfully sold us 4G using 3G stuff and now they need another G.

    Just ignore and instead lets focus on actual transfer speeds, that will put this nonsense to bed.

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  5. Kevin Fitchard Tuesday, April 23, 2013

    I agree with you 100 percent, Madlyb. My core argument is that we need to take the time to explain the difference between individual networks rather than resort to terms like 4G and 5G.

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  6. We are a long shot from anyone getting 5G. Hell Verizion, ATT 7 other dont even have 4G on all their towers yet so it alot of places their Customers are still on 3G still.

    This is a problem in my area (Northern New York State) because all the Verizion/ATT delers keep on Advertizing tehir phones as 4G when Verizion/ATT dont even have it is this area yet & unless a Customer ask about it most dealer dont even tell their Customers 4G is not in this area.

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  7. Too little, too late. You tech bloggers had your chance, but it’s long gone. I wonder how many thought the abuse of the term 4G would be a one-time thing. I’d have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell them.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Wednesday, April 24, 2013

      You’re right it’s too late for 4G, though many of us did rail against the AT&T and T-Mo appropriating the term for HSPA+. But 5G abuses are just starting, so now’s the best time to point out any abuses — before they get out of control.

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  8. madanjagernauth Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    How many remember that LTE stands for — stood for? — Long Term Evolution? If LTE really means evolution for the long term, why would we ever need yet another useless label like 5G?

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  9. Perhaps we need to choose a new term to mean the “real” “G”…. we could follow the memory/storage marketing dilution of definitions, and add a “ib” to the name, so by the time the actual technology catches up to the hype, we can go out and get 4Gib phones.

    If North American carriers were really using the Evolution aspect of LTE, we would have had RUIM cards at least a decade ago, so when the upgrades were available, we could just move the card to our new phone.

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