House Bill Would Require Truth-In-Data-Speeds From Wireless Carriers

CTIA 2010: Sprint event trumps 4G

The four U.S. wireless carriers all have four different versions of what they consider 4G networking speeds and technology, and therefore widespread confusion exists about the nature of those networks. If a bill introduced by a California member of the U.S. House of Representatives gains traction, they’ll be forced to prominently disclose the actual speeds, reliability statistics, and traffic-management strategies used on their 4G networks.

Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from Palo Alto, introduced the “Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act” Wednesday, saying that “consumers deserve to know exactly what they’re getting for their money when they sign-up for a 4G data plan” in a press release highlighting the bill. She proposed authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to develop reliability standards for wireless networks that would have to be displayed in carrier stores or on their Web sites when shopping for new phones or service and offer a guaranteed minimum speed that consumers can expect for their monthly fees.

Wireless networking speeds are notoriously variable. Weather, buildings, and different handsets can all cause consumers to experience a wide range of networking speeds from their carrier’s towers. However, carriers have also taken advantage of this by marketing theoretical top speeds when selling wireless services, not disclosing that those speeds can usually only be obtained in laboratory conditions while standing on one foot and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance backwards.

In addition, you find carriers like AT&T selling “4G” phones to its customers without mentioning that serious network upgrades are required to attain those speeds, meaning that it may be months depending on your location before your phone can reach the advertised speeds. Since the International Telecommunications Union doesn’t appear willing to enforce minimum requirements for “4G” speeds, the result is a mess.

Now, whether or not legislation will actually alleviate the problems or contribute to even more confusion is worthy of discussion. The technology involved in making the Internet travel through the air is extremely complicated and made even more arcane by the industry’s love of acronyms. Still, it’s not hard to argue with the concept that consumers should be able to compare data speeds and reliability across carriers with a common metric, as opposed to trying to figure out if Verizon’s LTE average download speeds are comparable to Sprint’s Wimax speeds, both of which are advertised as 4G.

Most carriers disclose this information on their Web sites, but it can be tough to find, and given that so many phones are sold at retail, clearer standards could help consumers make a decision in a store while under pressure from a sales representative. Eshoo’s bill was, of course, greeted with disdain from the wireless industry: “We are concerned that the bill proposes to add a new layer of regulation to a new and exciting set of services, while ignoring the fact that wireless is an inherently complex and dynamic environment in which network speeds can vary depending on a wide variety of factors,” Jot Carpenter of the CTIA said in a statement posted on the wireless industry trade association’s Web site.

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