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The 4G forgery

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 6:53PM EST

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T-Mobile does not have a 4G network. Sprint, which first launched WiMAX in June of 2009, does not have a 4G network. Verizon Wireless will flip the switch on LTE later this year and when it does, it will not have a 4G network. AT&T is taking its time with LTE and it won’t fire anything up until next year. When it finally does, AT&T will not have a 4G network.

“4G”, as we now use the term here in the United States, is marketing speak. Carriers have devalued it to the point where it simply doesn’t make sense to fight it anymore… but I’m going to anyway.

Though carriers aren’t going to like this, 4G actually does have a definition now. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) took its sweet time issuing that definition, however, so carriers decided to dismiss the fact that the ITU is the body that defines these technical terms.

But as I mentioned, 4G is now defined.

We don’t need to get too deep into the technical definition of 4G. In this context, here’s what you need to know: for a service to qualify as 4G, it must deliver peak download speeds of approximately 100Mbps in high-mobility environments (cell phones) and peak download speeds of approximately 1Gbps in low-mobility environments. Current technologies such as WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ certainly do not meet these criteria.

Of course carriers have known for a long time that once the ITU did finally define 4G, no current or near-term networks would fit the definition. But these telcos are making massive investments in building out and launching speedy new networks. How else can they relate these investments to the consumer?

“4G” is now simply a marketing term carriers use to distinguish new from old. They don’t care what new is, and they don’t care what old was. They just know what case studies have told them… people equate 4G with “fast”, so we’re calling our network 4G.

While T-Mobile is the latest carrier to fall under the microscope, it has just as much of a right to call HSPA+ “4G” as other carriers do to call WiMAX or LTE “4G”. WiMAX is faster than EVDO — 3G — so it is called 4G. HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) is faster than T-Mobile’s older HSPA network — 3G — so it is called 4G.

What’s funny is that when T-Mobile finally does launch an LTE network, it could potentially use the same logic carriers use now and call it a 5G network. Yes, it would use the same technology as AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ 4G networks, but it would be 5G. This scenario sounds ridiculous — but it’s actually happening right now. AT&T has an HSPA+ network just like T-Mobile, but AT&T calls it 3G while T-Mobile calls it 4G.

Does any of this even matter? Carriers are simply using the term to distinguish new, faster networks from old, slower networks. What’s the big deal?

In the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe it also wouldn’t be a big deal if Honda started advertising the 4-cylinder engine in its base model Civic as a V5. Why not? It would just be branding its engine as a V5 to help customers distinguish between the older, slower 4-cylinder model and the newer, faster 4-cylinder model.

Eventually, false advertising lawsuits will start popping up with regards to “4G” but carriers are all in too deep now. Settling will be infinitely cheaper than rebranding. They’ve made their beds.

But the recurring argument surrounding the question “is this 4G?” should not continue. The answer is no longer open to debate. The ITU has defined 4G and no current or near-term networks in the U.S. fit the bill. There is no “4G”.

And so with that, I’ll leave you with the marketer’s mantra…

It’s not lies. It’s just marketing.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.

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