AT&T’s recent release of its first 4G-branded phone, the Samsung Infuse, highlights the growing flexibility of the term “4G,” as carriers compete in the race for the fastest network.
The Dallas, Texas-based carrier has upgraded 80 percent of its network to HSPA-plus technology, in a move that roughly doubled download speeds compared to 3G. But while AT&T has decided to call this new network “4G,” HSPA-plus is actually considered “3.5G” — a bridge to “true 4G,” which offers substantially faster speeds.
“The whole industry has come to equate more speed with 4G,” said Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s chief executive.
In rebranding its network as 4G, AT&T may be responding to the overall industry pressure to upgrade to the faster standard, if only as a marketing move. With Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all advertising 4G networks, it’s likely that AT&T felt that it could not afford to be seen as the laggard.
But AT&T isn’t the only carrier to blame. T-Mobile deployed HSPA-plus last year, declaring that its network offered “4G speeds.” At the time, AT&T loudly objected, insisting that HSPA-plus — the same standard it is now using — wasn’t real 4G, ironically.
The best claim on 4G comes from Verizon, whose newly-launched network uses a competing standard called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE. While LTE only covers 38 markets, it offers substantially more bandwidth than HSPA-plus. Verizon plans to have nationwide LTE coverage by the end of 2013.
AT&T said it will begin rolling out LTE in select cities later this year, and that — surprisingly — that most users would not notice its speed increase over HSPA-plus. Therefore, it makes sense to call both “4G.”
But no U.S. carrier, not even Verizon, can technically claim to have a “true” 4G network. The ITU, a U.N. agency, regulates these telecom issues and defines what qualifies as 4G — technologies that none of the carriers have deployed. Despite this, carriers have no hesitation to bend the definition of 4G to draw data-hungry consumers to their services.