4G: What's it all about?

POSTED BY Christina Arbini on Nov 5, 2010

With 4G currently leading as the hot topic in the world of wireless, consumers are faced with countless messaging claims regarding this often confusing fourth-generation network.

Jamie Monberg, Hornall Anderson's Chief Experience Officer, was recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about this.

4G Image Scrambled As T-Mobile USA Enters The Mix

By Roger Cheng


NOVEMBER 3, 2010, 3:11 P.M. ET

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--So what is 4G? Thanks to the wireless carriers, the answer is only getting more confusing.

T-Mobile USA is the latest carrier to jump into the 4G fray, boasting in a new campaign that began Tuesday night that its HSPA network--which it previously claimed was 3G--is actually the nation's largest fourth-generation network.

That conflicts with positions taken by Sprint Nextel Corp. (S), which has been evangelizing the benefits of 4G for the past two years; its partner Clearwire Corp. (CLWR), which is responsible for building out the network and reports its third-quarter results on Thursday; and the other national carriers moving into 4G. Unsurprisingly, the move was not received well.

"They are putting a mask on 3G and pretending it's 4G," said Matt Carter, head of Sprint's 4G business.

The increased rhetoric underscores the high-stakes game played by the carriers as they jockey for position as the fastest and most advanced network on the block. With the preponderance of programs and services reliant on a speedy wireless connection, consumers are starting to show interest in so-called 4G networks, even if they don't quite know what they are.

The conflicting campaigns probably won't help the already scant public knowledge of wireless technology. In a recent Yankee Group survey of more than 1,200 consumers, 57% said they have either never heard of 3G or don't understand the term. With 4G, that figure jumps to 68%.

"To be perfectly honest, even as a technologist, it's incredibly confusing," said Jamie Monberg, a 38-year-old executive for a Seattle-based design firm. He admits that his need for the latest and greatest has him coveting a 4G phone.

The practice of adding "Gs" with each technology revision isn't the healthiest practice for the industry, analysts say. More confusing is the use of 3.5G, which has started to pop up in phones such as Nokia Corp.'s (NOK) recently released N8.

"That is going to get pretty ridiculous really quickly," said Christopher Nicoll, analyst at Yankee Group.

Another wrinkle: none of the current networks actually qualify as 4G, according to the ITU, a U.N. agency responsible for setting global standards for communications technology. The agency last month said that only two standards, LTE-Advanced and WiMax 2, are considered true 4G technologies. While Verizon Wireless is launching an LTE network and Sprint and Clearwire have embraced WiMax, neither of the deployments come close to the specifications laid out by the ITU.

Still, by adopting the 4G name, T-Mobile USA is hoping to capitalize on the growing interest, even if its network is an update to a 3G standard. The carrier is already promoting the MyTouch 4G and G2 as the first phones capable of taking advantage of the network's highest speeds.

The carrier, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG (DT), has AT&T Inc. (T) in its sights early with a commercial that riffs off of the popular PC versus Mac ads, inserting instead the "old AT&T network" versus T-Mobile USA's newer 4G one.

AT&T, however, has been rolling out the same HSPA technology and claims it has the nation's fastest network. Unlike the other major carriers, it hasn't yet staked a claim in 4G, but plans to launch an LTE network next year.

"Third-party research is clear--AT&T has the nation's fastest mobile broadband network, period," said a spokesman.

T-Mobile USA said its network is in 75 markets and in some cases, offer a faster connection than the 4G equivalent offered by Clearwire and Sprint.

"If you look at the speed of the WiMax network out there, we're meeting, beating and exceeding them right now," T-Mobile spokesman Reid Walker said.

Walker added there already is customer confusion over 4G, and he says T-Mobile USA's higher speeds bring some clarity.

T-Mobile's push comes ahead of Verizon Wireless's own move into 4G. The carrier, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group PLC (VOD), plans to have the network up in 38 cities and 62 airports later this year.

The increased noise over 4G only diminishes Sprint and Clearwire's lead, which has shrunk as other carriers prep their own upgraded networks. Clearwire, which turned on its WiMax network in the New York area Monday, is available in nearly 60 markets.

Clearwire Chief Commercial Officer Mike Sievert said that the company's ability to deliver more capacity and better value will continue to set it apart. He added customers aren't going to get caught up with the alphabet soup of technology buzzwords.

Still, with the increased attention around 4G, Monberg said he has high expectations, although they are tempered. "I've had 1G, 2G, 3G, and I still don't have a phone that won't drop a call," he said.

WRITTEN BY Christina Arbini

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