T-Mobile vs. AT&T: 4G or not 4G?

AT&T vs. T-Mobile: 3G vs. 4G? More like HSPA+ vs. HSPA+.

While Sprint and T-Mobile continue to roll out their “4G” service in major US cities today, the wireless industry is applauding the decision last week by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a standards body, to ratify the LTE-Advanced standard as 4G technology. Final ratification of the 4G standards took place at the ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) Study Group meeting on November 22 and 23 in Geneva, Switzerland. The ITU also voted that WirelessMAN-Advanced, a key part to WiMAX IEEE 802.16m standard (next-generation WiMAX), satisfies the 4G criteria.

Unfortunately, these technologies are not what most of the major carriers are calling 4G. The ITU recently said that all US wireless networks being called 4G today aren’t really 4G. The ITU reserves “true 4G” for networks that achieve speeds of 100 Mbps, or roughly ten times the performance offered by any carrier in the US today.

Types of networks and their carriers

To help provide context, let’s set some definitions:

4G: Fourth-generation cellular wireless technology. By ITU definition, an all-IP-packet-switched network with access to gigabit speeds from multiple carriers; otherwise a marketing term used by global carriers.

HSPA: High-Speed Packet Access, an earlier stage of the physical radio interface that supports peak downlink data rates of 14 Mbps; widely deployed in over 80 countries.

HSPA+: Enhanced HSPA, marketed as 4G by T-Mobile (claiming up to 21 Mbps), but not by AT&T, who also deploys HSPA+.

LTE: Long-Term Evolution, based on 3GPP standards for LTE radio technology, often marketed as 4G (MetroPCS, Verizon, TeliaSonera).

LTE-Advanced: Enhanced LTE networks certified as actual 4G by the ITU, with peak download data speeds of 1 Gbps; achievable as a carrier upgrade from LTE networks; someone might possibly launch it sometime in 2011 (source).

WiMAX: Mobile wireless broadband access, often marketed as 4G, with peak data rates of 128 Mbps downlink over 20 MHz-wide channels (Sprint, Clearwire).

Wireless-MAN Advanced: A version of WiMAX; by ITU definition, “true 4G.”

And here’s a quick run-down of the unfolding 4G War:

  • Jan. 29, 2007—China launches the “world’s first 4G” technology trial in Shanghai, allowing data transmission of up to 100 Mbps.
  • Sept. 2008— Sprint launches “4G” service in Baltimore; introduces 3G/4G modem, a USB-based datacard for WiMAX claiming up to 4 Mbps downlink speeds.
  • Jan. 6, 2009—Clearwire and Intel launch the “world’s first 4G network” in Portland, OR, a WiMAX network delivering up to 6 Mbps to laptops, 4 Mbps to cell phones.
  • Dec. 14, 2009—Scandinavian telco, TeliaSonera launches the “world’s first 4G” commercial mobile broadband in Stockholm and Oslo based on LTE technology; the network demonstrated 42.8 Mbps.
  • Oct. 6, 2010—Verizon launches “4G” (5 to 12 Mbps) LTE network in Boston and Seattle.
  • Jun. 4, 2010—Sprint announces America’s “first 4G phone,” the Android-powered HTC EVO, claiming download speeds of up to 6 Mbps.
  • Oct. 30, 2010—T-Mobile claims its HSPA+ technology is “largest 4G” network, prompting snarky responses from AT&T and Sprint. The “4G War” is on.
  • Nov. 2, 2010—T-Mobile extends HSPA+ service to 75+ metropolitan areas (claiming up to up to 21-Mbps data speeds)
  • Nov. 22, 2010—AT&T counters that claim, saying its broadband network is faster and bigger by far.
  • Nov. 29—Sprint announces roll-out of 4G in Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, OH, and Washington, D.C.

Many carriers have been marketing their post-3G networks as “4G” since early 2008, before the ITU could get around to defining what the term should mean. Finally, the ITU has caught up to defining the term as “not what anybody is offering nor will be soon.” Will carriers plow ahead with their “faux-G” claims? Or will the industry erupt in a chain of lawsuits against carriers for exaggerated claims? More in tomorrow’s blog

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