Telecom PR: Just What is “4G,” Anyway?
When Harley-Davidson and Indian competed to rule the motorcyle world, they designed their bikes to be as different as possible. Harleys had a left-hand suicide shift, right-hand throttle and reverse foot clutch, while Indians shifted on the right, throttled on the left, and had a clutch that worked like a car’s. Different operating standards enforced brand loyalty — if you learned to ride on an Indian, you likely rode Indians thereafter. But the standards battle had one side effect: delaying emergence of a market leader.
Today, a similar standards issue plagues the mobile industry. You may have picked up on it during Verizon’s iPhone launch, even though Verizon attempted to subtly sweep a few rather significant details under the carpet:
- Because Verizon Wireless started out with an entirely different mobile standard called CDMA and is evolving toward true 4G along a path called LTE or LTE+, you’ll have to buy a Verizon iPhone in order to use their service. It’s not just a matter of Verizon wanting you to buy a new phone — Your old AT&T iPhone won’t work on the Verizon network.
- You can’t take it with you. Due to a standards difference, Verizon mobile phones don’t work in Europe and most other parts of the world. In the U.K. or France your Verizon iPhone will be handy as a desktop paper weight, and that’s about it.
- Verizon’s iPhone won’t do quite everything that AT&T’s iPhone will, notably permit you to switch back & forth between apps like mapping directions while you’re on a voice call — you’ll have to hang up on whomever you’re speaking with and call back when you have the data. This “feature” directly stems from Verizon Mobile’s network standard. They says it’s no big deal. We’ll see.
- Perhaps most significantly, Verizon’s iPhone is not being offered on their new 4G network, only on their “advanced” 3G network. Given all the PR ballyhoo Verizon has made over 4G, which happens to overlap their iPhone launch, Verizon’s posture strikes me as being a tad disingenuous. Verizon Mobile’s PR sleight of hand — birthing their iPhone on 3G while dissing AT&T’s “slow” networking capabilities — doesn’t fly. After the much-publicized network problems experienced by AT&T’s iPhone users, people were expecting more from Verizon Wireless: honest to God mobile 4G.
Upshot: Expect confusion to reign in the mobile arena for the foreseeable future. Mobile operators are talking 4G and delivering something else. Which raises the questions — what is 4G exactly, what do today’s service operators really offer, and what’s the difference between that and true 4G? For the answers let’s look to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the global standards-setting body, for some simple definitions. I’m pulling this straight from Wikipedia, which pulled it straight from the ITU:
“4G stands for the fourth generation of cellular wireless standards. It is a successor to 3G and 2G families of standards. Speed requirements for 4G service set the peak download speed at 100 Mbit/s for high mobility communication (such as from trains and cars) and 1 Gbit/s for low mobility communication (such as pedestrians and stationary users).
A 4G system is expected to provide a comprehensive and secure all-IP based mobile broadband solution to smart phones, laptop computer wireless modems and other mobile devices. Facilities such as ultra-broadband Internet access, IP telephony, gaming services, and streamed multimedia may be provided to users.
Pre-4G technologies such as mobile WiMAX and first-release 3G Long term evolution (LTE) have been on the market since 2006 and 2009 respectively, and are often branded as 4G. The current versions of these technologies did not fulfill the original ITU-R requirements of data rates approximately up to 1 Gbit/s for 4G systems. Marketing materials use 4G as a description for Mobile-WiMAX and LTE in their current forms.
IMT-Advanced compliant versions of the above two standards are under development and called “LTE Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” respectively. ITU has decided that “LTE Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” should be accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced. On December 6th, 2010, ITU announced that current versions of LTE, WiMax and other evolved 3G technologies that do not fulfull “IMT-Advanced” requirements could be considered “4G”, provided they represent forerunners to IMT-Advanced and ‘a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.’ “
So. . .what standards are AT&T and Verizon Wireless using for their “4G” services — pre-4G interim standards, not 4G.
In an extremely odd twist for a standards-setting body, the ITU’s December 6, 2010 decision essentially let companies using pre-4G standards off the hook by lowering the bar on the 4G standard. What’s the difference? — speed, of course. If your mobile service doesn’t meet the ITU’s 1 Gbit/second download threshold, it ain’t 4G — not really.
Some might see an odd coincidence between the ITU’s sudden shift and mobile operators’ recent push to fob off pre-4G as 4G. I’ll leave that to the corporate conspiracy theorists. Maybe Julian Assange will take a look. Meantime, as you mull which new smart phone to buy on whose network, consider what these companies are and aren’t offering you.
Personally, I’m waiting for the really smart phone that works on any network anywhere at true 4G speeds. What about you?
BTW, Harley ultimately clobbered Indian by continuously evolving its product, developing better engines and simplifying the bike through innovations such as the hand-operated clutch and foot-operated shifter. In contrast, Indian clove to its original standard — the same side-valve engine, foot clutch, left-hand throttle and suicide shift — from 1922 until they went out of business 30 years later. Food for thought. I like Indians and own a pair because they’re quaint, but for fast, reliable, completely carefree two-wheeling, Harleys are the industry gold standard. In mobile, the Harley-Davidson of 4G hasn’t hit the roads yet.
Jim Crawford is the president and founder of Crawford PR. In Crawford blogs, he offers hard-earned perspective on public relations for the tech and broadband industries.