Don't Get Caught by Carrier Speed Traps

Carl Weinschenk

This short item about Verizon's LTE upgrade across the Chattanooga, TN, area is a good example of the type of news that is going to become increasingly common. The piece says that the speeds of 5 to 12 Megabits per second (Mbps) will be available.

The company deserves credit for the wide range of speeds it is promising. But the fact remains there will be a good deal of one-upmanship -- and perhaps some plain old fibbing -- when it comes to highlighting the prospective speed of Long Term Evolution (LTE).

That gamesmanship is par for the course for highly competitive new services that are being pushed by marketing departments and big time advertising campaigns. At the end of the day, the promises are something of which to be aware -- but not to give too much credence to. An IT department's acid test of any technology, including LTE, remains simply whether or not it can do the job for which it is being considered.

AT&T offers a broadband map highlighting its 4G, mobile broadband and mobile data cover. Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm admirably takes on the difficult task of running through the significant caveats that should be assigned to what it says. It's important to think about maps and what they mean now, since the National Broadband Map recently was lit by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The short version of Higginbotham's take on AT&T is that there are different types of 4G, and they have different real and potential data rates. Saying that 4G service is fast is like saying a pitcher has a good fastball. There is Scott Beckett and Jaba Chamberlain fast-pretty good, to be sure. And then there is Ardolis Chapman fast. That's a whole different story.

4G is a generic term. There is a decided differences between what each specific technology in that family can potentially deliver and what it actually serves up. And there is a high level of variability even within each flavor of 4G. Conditions also play a big role: Speeds also go down when there is network congestion or when the subscriber is toward the periphery of the cell site.

Still another complicating factor is that the International Telecommunication Union changed the definition of 4G to include the current versions of LTE, WiMax and an advanced version of High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) that previously was thought to fall short. Each of these has different speed and performance characteristics. This makes the statement that 4G is available -- if other details aren't included -- even more vague and less meaningful.

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