The 4G Name Game

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Terms coined by engineers almost invariably are taken over by marketers, whose use of that nomenclature is, to put it mildly, more relaxed. The tendency is even more pronounced when the technology is as intrinsically confusing and evolving as rapidly as it is in the wireless sector.


The next move of wireless is said to be into the 4G realm, which common wisdom says is either Long Term Evolution or WiMax. The situation is a bit fuzzy, however. There is, it seems, a corollary to the rule that marketers will take over technical terms: Once they take ownership, marketers will start claiming that their competitors are using it incorrectly. The Wall Street Journal has posted a story that describes the confusion around the 4G concept.


T-Mobile USA is claiming to have "America's largest 4G network," while Sprint Nextel says it is making available the nation's first network of that type. Sprint Nextel, which is using a network built by Clearwire, claims that T-Mobile's 4G network is a 3G network in disguise because it uses High Speed Packet Access Plus (HSPA). T-Mobile counters that it can call itself 4G because it is faster than Sprint's. T-Mobile USA's CTO Neville Ray expands on his aggressive stance in this GigaOm story.

The joke may be on both carriers-or the folks who believe their claims. Roger Cheng writes at WSJ.com:


In a sense, T-Mobile and Sprint/Clearwire are both wrong. The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency responsible for setting global standards for communications technology, announced Oct. 21 that only two technologies-LTE-Advanced and WiMax 2-truly qualify as 4G. The ITU determined those could clear its hurdle of speeds of 100 megabits per second for mobile downloads.

The story further says that the LTE being promised by Verizon Wireless and the Sprint/Clearwire version of WiMax use earlier versions of both technologies and "don't come close to the specifications laid out by the ITU."

The reality is that the world doesn't easily fit into 3G and 4G categorization. Buzzle.com offers answers to some basic questions. The best overview, however, is a two-year-old but still very current Network World video featuring Farpoint Group's Craig Mathias. He goes through the very hard to follow history of 1G, 2G, 2.5G, 3G, 3.5G and 4G. He only skims the surface in seven minutes, but suffice it to say that when rocket scientists try to make a simple point, one of them should say, "Come on, it's not wireless technology."

In a sense, the formalized definitions and expected speeds of various types of wireless technology don't matter too much. In the real world, the number of simultaneous users, the distance from a cell tower, the atmospheric conditions and other issues determine the speeds that end users will get. Determining throughput based on these variables is far more important than the label given the platform, no matter what the marketing department says.