Despite 4G Ads, AT&T’s 4G Phones Often Fall Short On Speed


Normally when you buy a next-generation product, you expect next-generation performance. Owners of AT&T’s new “4G” phones are finding out the hard way that’s not always the case.

PC Magazine tracked the performance of two new “4G” phones released on AT&T’s network, and found that the Motorola (NYSE: MMI) Atrix and HTC Inspire, both billed as 4G phones, were actually slower than phones built for AT&T’s 3G network. What’s even worse is that AT&T (NYSE: T) has acknowledged that those phones won’t always reach their advertised speeds because it hasn’t turned on the faster network connection in those phones.

In a statement provided in response to a complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau, AT&T denied the move was a “cap” on operating speed of its 4G phones, attempting to argue that not turning on the capability isn’t the same as turning it off.

“The Atrix 4G is an HSUPA-capable device, and we currently are performing the testing and preparations necessary to ensure that, when we turn this feature on, you will continue to have a world class experience,” AT&T said in response to the complaint, as noted by CNET. Of course, AT&T is notorious for the poor performance of its network, and so few would begrudge them wanting to do as much testing and preparation as possible before launching a new network technology.

However, AT&T is selling the Atrix and Inspire as “4G” phones on its Web site and directs interested shoppers to a coverage map that doesn’t even show 4G coverage. In order to find if your hometown is covered by the 4G service you have to mouse over that map to bring up additional links, but in several cases where 4G details are promised–such as the Bay Area, Baltimore, and Charlotte, North Carolina–AT&T’s Web site fails to deliver the detailed map.

The situation makes it very difficult for consumer to understand what exactly they are getting in a “4G” device, and also underscores the reality among all four major wireless carriers when it comes to 4G networks: your mileage may vary. Wildly different standards and network performance numbers are being used to describe so-called “4G” networks in the absence of any recognized standard for using that label.

AT&T says it’s planning to complete the backhaul work needed to fully unlock 4G speeds it advertises, so it’s not like the 4G phones will be forever useless. However, in the meantime an awful lot of those who are paying for 4G phones from AT&T aren’t getting 4G speeds, and the carrier’s haste to join the 4G marketing battles without actually producing those speeds in a wide swath of markets in which the phones are available is questionable at best.

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