Do you know what 4G is? Are you up to speed with 4G? This is the new Next Generation of mobile telephony, boldly going where date streaming and up/down-load speeds had feared to tread. You probably imagine there to be some technical specs. lying around to ensure that the 4G moniker is only used when technically correct, and consistently by all carriers, right? Predictably, the answer is yes…and no.
4G is fourth-generation wireless, that stage of broadband mobile communications that supersedes 3G. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a 4G network requires mobile devices to be able to exchange data at a peak download of 100 Megabits per second for high mobility communications, if from trains and automobiles (and while you’re at it please, please keep the planes out of it!), while 1 Gigabit per second is required for pedestrian and other stationary users. These download speeds are a factor of 10 faster than predecessor 3G systems. Sounds good and fast.
A 4G system should provide a comprehensive and secure all-IP based mobile broadband solution to smart-phones, laptop computer, wireless modems and other mobile devices. Other facilities such as ultra-broadband Internet access, IP telephony, gaming services, and streamed multimedia may be available for users. Pre-4G technologies such as mobile WiMax and first-release 3G Long-term evolution (LTE) have been available since 2006 and 2009 respectively, and are often branded as 4G, even though the current versions of these technologies do not comply with the ITU recommended data download speeds. Apparently carriers justify the use of the 4G label because consumers can expect significantly faster data speeds. Well, the Model T was faster than a horse, but didn’t make it any good.
Ho hum you might say, and with good reason. Basically 4G is whatever the carriers want it to be.
ITU exists to foster the use of communications globally and is relied upon, for example, by developing countries requiring assurance that a new technology is standardized and likely to be widely deployed. Although the ITU has adopted recommendations for future global communication technologies they rely on other standards bodies such as IEEE, The WiMax Forum and 3GPP for development and implementation. And, these recommendations aren’t binding on member countries. In December 2010, at the ITU World Radio-communication Seminar 2010, the ITU stated that LTE, WiMax and similar "evolved 3G technologies" could be considered "4G". This even though they had already announced in October 2010 that only LTE-Advanced and WiMax 2 would truly qualify as 4G. Thereby shooting themselves in the foot and giving the networks free rein to con the consumer into thinking it really is 4G, when it could more accurately be labeled 3G going on 4G, not quite 4G, or even 4G and a few bits short of a byte. And if you believe that, I’ve a bridge to sell, and you really do think that Platform 9¾ at London’s Kings Cross Station will get you to Hogwarts.
Keeping on that theme, 4G has been acronymed as MAGIC — Mobile multimedia, Anytime anywhere, Global mobility support, Integrated wireless solution, and Customized personal service. That may be the case, but the carriers will need more than a wave of the wand to magic up 4G networks that aren’t up to scratch.
But the war of the words has started. As reported late last year by the Wall Street Journal, the carriers are already aggressively rolling out claims of faster, next-generation service on networks they're spending billions of dollars to upgrade, thus underscoring the billions of dollars at stake. But none come even close to the ITU standards. For example Verizon leads the race with 12M/bits per second, followed by T-Mobile with 8 and Sprint Nextel/Clearwire with a measly 6. Not exactly straining at the leash here folks.
The Sprint and T-Mobile PR spin machines are battling it out, with Sprint bragging of "bringing you the first wireless 4G network."And T-Mobile apparently owns "America's largest 4G network", the same one it advertised last March as the country's fastest 3G network. “If you look at the speed of the WiMax network out there, we're meeting, beating and exceeding them right now," said Reid Walker, a spokesman for T-Mobile USA. Well yes, but being the best of a bad bunch is no great shakes.
According to AT&T Inc., who are rolling out the same technology as T-Mobile, "Third-party research is clear, AT&T has the nation's fastest mobile broadband network, period," said an AT&T spokesman. Ah yes, no mention of 4G then? Sometimes less is more.