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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

AT&T Relabels Their Data Network, Proves '4G' Doesn't Really Mean Anything

Posted by Joshua_Kopstein
To the average consumer, the intricacies of the wireless technologies used by cellphones and other mobile devices are confusing. Fortunately, cell phone carriers have made it easier on us by inventing the “G,” a nebulous standard that makes people think they understand what they’re getting when they sign up for that two-year contract. The bad news: The carriers themselves typically don’t care about what a 3G or 4G network should actually be. And now, as proof of concept, AT&T has re-branded their existing 3G network as a 4G network.

At least now we’re clear on exactly what ‘4G’ means: Essentially, nothing.

By definition, 4G network “standards” like LTE (Long Term Evolution) run at speeds of 1 Gbit/s for low-mobility connections like cellphones. But it doesn’t mean they have to. That doesn’t matter much to carriers, however, since most consumers don’t know enough about how cellular tech works to wonder or even care about the actual capabilities of the network they’re shelling out for. After all, chances are that even if they could, those under-trained representatives aren’t going explain to you the difference between HSPA Plus (what AT&T uses currently) and LTE. Like always, they still only want to do two things: Sell you a phone, and sell you a contract with a network that operates on muddied and arbitrary wireless standards.
Threatened by other providers touting presumably faster networks, AT&T’s new ‘4G’ branding will run on the same old HSPA Plus tech that you’ve been using to get oft-congested connections on your iPhone. Their excuse for doing this? “We won’t notice.”
“The whole industry has come to equate more speed with 4G,” said Ralph de la Vega, chief executive of AT&T’s wireless unit. He says consumers generally won’t notice the difference in speed between AT&T’s HSPA-plus and upcoming LTE networks, so it makes sense to call both 4G.

John Donovan, AT&T’s chief technology officer, said speeds on HSPA-plus and LTE phones will feel similar now, but users will start to notice a difference in the two technologies once richer applications become available.
I had to re-read that first part at least 3 times because it is so absurd that I could not wrap my brain around it. Essentially this is AT&T saying, “we don’t need to wait for a faster network, because we’ve been sufficiently awesome this whole time — we just forgot to give to tack on that cool name that everyone’s using.” And as for applications not being “rich” enough, that too sounds like a massive cop-out. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that’s seeing the apps on their smartphone choke on current data speeds.

AT&T’s not the only one making semantic upgrades, however — T-Mobile, which still runs on the same ‘3G’ HSPA Plus networks as AT&T, has also recently switched to the “4G” nomenclature. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible to get faster speeds on a 4G handset using the same old networks, but it’s hard to imagine the boost being anything but marginal.

So in the end, it’ll be up to us to find out just what the heck our carrier’s ‘4G’ network actually is. Lifehacker’s got a pretty decent guide. Read up and don’t be a sucker.