People like labels since they make life easier. It's simpler to say that a carrier offers 4G than to measure and compare and contrast the true upstream and downstream speeds.
The reality is that there is a tremendous amount of fuzziness in 4G services. RootMetrics has proven this by investigating the precise performance characteristics of 4G services from Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T.
The piece is worth a read. The bottom line, as CEO and President Bill Moore puts it, is that the world of 4G is far from stable:
Confusion and Skepticism May Impede 4G Adoption
With so many potential 4G customers expressing concerns about cost and performance providers may be in for some disappointment.
With each of the major carriers touting the benefits of its particular LTE or WiMAX or HSPA+ flavor, 4G seems to be everywhere. Except, of course, when it's not: maybe the carrier's 4G footprint isn't as robust as you thought, maybe those promised 4G speeds aren't as consistent as you had expected, or maybe you aren't even sure if 4G means the same thing from one carrier to the next. The landscape is notoriously confusing, with each carrier promoting competing claims of its 4G prowess.
The approach was essentially to measure it in a way that most closely matches people's experience on mobile networks: how often things work as advertised, how often they fall short and how often they fail altogether. The results were a bit of a mixed bag but, in general, Verizon Wireless was on top and T-Mobile on the bottom.
The 4G situation, clearly, is in flux. Besides the suddenly questionable fate of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, rumors have been surfacing about Sprint's intentions. This, from the perspective of how the company fared in the RootMetrics report, isn't a bad thing.
At the end of the day, 4G is the less-sexy bookend of smartphones. It also is, according to a study by a major consultancy, an engine of the future:
The Deloitte study predicts that as telecommunications firms advance their 4G networks, the U.S. economy could see investments anywhere between $25 billion and $53 billion in new fiber lines, cell towers and other infrastructure to carry increasing data. That could translate to as many as 771,000 new jobs and up to $151 billion in spurred GDP. The estimates of investment growth depend on how rapidly telecoms move to advance their systems.
The bloom will fall off the rose quite quickly, however, if carriers play too fast and loose with definitions and if too many people are disappointed too often. RootMetrics' study suggests that there is a danger that this is happening.