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"4G" – what's in a name?

I will never forget the first time a buzzword set wrong with me. During a budget meeting, while describing a new billing solution to the owner of the company, he blinked a few times, looked up from the paper I had given him and asked “Would this be any cheaper to deploy if it were in the cloud?”. The complete lack of understanding, coupled with a buzzword that applied to no less than three separate technologies at the time floored me. Since then, I admit to being something of a crusader against buzzwords. It’s a flaw, I know. Now, though, there is a new kid on the block. This kid has been the fuel to so many recent arguments, I hardly even know where to begin. So, for you guys, I throw on my thinking cap, and tackle the concept, deployment, and proper use of the term “4G”.

I’m gonna start by upsetting some of you. There are currently no active deployments of any “4G” mobile broadbandsystems of any kind, anywhere. Well, that can’t be true! Sprint has been claiming ‘the nations first 4G network” for months. They even charge their customers extra every month if you own a phone capable of accessing this network! Then there’s Verizon, with their LTE network which has been referred to as “4G” a whole mess of times. T-Mobile, while their marketing people have been very carefully walking the line by always referring to HSPA+ as “reaching 4G speeds” even calls their improved network “4G” in a document leaked at TmoNews yesterday. Where’s the harm, right? Aren’t these all arguably, in some way|shape|form a “4G” network?

No. In fact, they aren’t even close.

Stay with me now, we’re getting to the fun part. These are not “4G” networks. They are, all of them, 3G networks, in point of fact. A 4G network is clearly defined by the International Telecommunications Unit as expected to provide a comprehensive and secure all-IP based solution where facilities such as IP telephony, ultra-broadband Internet access, gaming services and streamed multimedia may be provided to users. None of the existing networks meet this criteria. Here, allow me to demonstrate!

Verizon’s LTE network – Amusingly enough, the full name for this technology is 3GPP Long Term Evolution. Weird how they left that first part out, right? Might have been easier not to get confused by all the marketing of the technology. Plain and simple, while this implementation does meet some of the requirements, as it is capable of delivering the theoretical  100mbits/second of a “4G” network, it does not comply with the standards for 40MHz channels, or those for low mobility networks, making it a 3G network.

Sprint’s WiMAX network – The current implementation of WiMAX, or 802.16e-2005, is a 3G network, for the same reasons LTE is a 3G network. The initial requirement of at least 100mbits down is there, but none of the other requirements have been met. There is, however, a revision to WiMAX in the works, called 802.16m, which hopes to gain the approval of the ITU as a 4G network.

T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network – This isn’t even close. The maximum for the existing version of this technology is 56Mbits down, and unless engineered otherwise, decreases significantly once you reach the halfway point of a given cell tower. There are, however, revisions of this technology that hope to reach 168mbits down, but no word on whether the other requirements of 4G are being met.

So there you go. Not 4G, and no room for argument. The standards were set by someone who is not me, and these current deployments all fail to meet those standards. Therefore, NOT 4G. So, why lie to us? Why spend so much time and effort trying to play this off as something it wasn’t? Why charge us more for it? There doesn’t seem to be a REAL reason for this, aside from being able to say ‘we got there first’, or ‘we did it better than these guys’. Well, yeah, I guess that is the reason…

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