Americans have terrible mobile broadband network infrastructure, yet our service providers make it sound awesome. Now that 2 of our 4 national wireless providers now offer 4G service, one might conclude that the United States is awash in mobile broadband. But neither of these supposed 4G offerings is anywhere near fast enough to meet the ITU standards for 4G, and even our 3G networks woefully under-perform vendor promises. With no teeth in “truth-in-advertising” laws, it begs the question of what these supposed standards really mean.
Flashback: The 3G Rollout
When EDGE was added to existing GPRS networks by “2G” GSM carriers, many chose to advertise it as “3G”. For example, Cingular (forerunner of today’s AT&T Wireless) called their nationwide EDGE rollout a “third-generation” technology, clearly trying to capitalize on the buzz created by competitors Verizon and Sprint with their EV-DO 3G network. Cingular responded that EDGE was theoretically fast enough to be considered 3G, and this argument was eventually accepted, with EDGE added to the official list of 3G standards.
But EDGE wasn’t fast. Although theoretically capable of 1 Mbit/s throughput and 10 ms latency, the Cingular EDGE network was barely faster than the old GPRS network it replaced. Customers weren’t fooled, and although EDGE equipment became widespread, it wasn’t much of a selling point.
Then Cingular (now AT&T) decided to roll out HSPA technology, which offered “real” 3G speed. Suddenly, the EDGE network wasn’t 3G anymore (though they still call it “third generation” today). They began another nationwide 3G rollout, this time using HSPA for “up to” 14 Mbit/s downloads and 5.8 Mbit/s uploads once they turned on HSDPA and HSUPA. Although real-world performance lags, AT&T 3G is faster than their competitors. This is the 3G network that iPhone customers love to hate, and it still hasn’t reached the mid-American city where I live.
Sprint/Clear WiMAX: New Technology, Old Performance
Sprint and ClearWire got together in 2008 to launch a “4G” network using WiMAX technology. This is the network that supports the Google Android-powered HTC EVO 4G phone, currently the darling of many technology folks who read this blog.
WiMAX is clearly a new technology, and the Sprint/Clear rollout has already cost billions. Yet WiMAX isn’t actually all that fast: The US network is limited to 6 Mbit/s download and 1 Mbit/s upload. This is slower than the HS(D|U)PA “3G” networks of AT&T and T-Mobile, and not much faster than the existing EV-DO Rev A networks of Verizon and Sprint itself.
Indeed, WiMAX isn’t anywhere near the 100 Mbit/s target set by the ITU-R as a minimum standard for mobile 4G networks, and will be hard-pressed to reach the ITU’s 1 Gbit/s fixed-location mark. Although WiMAX is a fourth-generation wireless technology, the ITU says it isn’t “4G”. But Sprint and Clear don’t care – they’re rapidly rolling ahead with sales of their “4G” hardware.
T-Mobile 4G: Play It Again
Then there’s the T-Mobile USA “4G rollout”. In light of the WiMAX push, T-Mobile decided to upgrade their existing network with HSPA+ technology. The company is aggressively selling this as 4G, and claiming they have the largest 4G network in the country.
HSPA+ definitely isn’t 4G according to the ITU. And it’s not a fourth-generation technology, either. HSPA+ is an evolution of the HSPA 3G technology already used around the world. But it works.
Unlike WiMAX, HSPA+ generally out-performs existing 3G networks by a wide margin. T-Mobile USA (and Telstra in Australia) are using a 21 Mbit/s variant that is noticeably faster than HSPA 3G, EV-DO Rev A, and Sprint/Clear WiMAX.
Neither WiMAX nor HSPA+ are true 4G networks according to the ITU, but it really doesn’t matter what some standards body says. Both are faster than existing technology, and both have the potential to benefit mobile broadband customers. Every technology under-performs its theoretical limits, and this is especially true with wireless networking gear. Perhaps the ITU should take what it’s calling 4G and rebadge it 5G – although LTE will be introduced next year, it won’t reach official 4G speeds any time soon.
It is frustrating to see consumers confused about naming, however. Cingular was insincere with their “third-generation” EDGE campaign, and this became obvious when they deployed real 3G technology. Although I can understand AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint getting upset about T-Mobile’s “4G” campaign, they don’t have as much to complain about this time around. T-Mobile is delivering blazing fast technology that beats everyone else in the industry and they deserve credit for that. As for me, I’d be happy with plain old 3G coverage!
Image credit: Cell Tower by live w mcs