T-Mobile, your HSPA+ network is not 4G

There are probably going to be a lot of people going over this territory, but I wanted to give a brief run-through for those who don’t want to read through pages of technical specs. T-Mobile USA is making a lot of noise about the growth of it’s 4G network in the United States… but it doesn’t have a 4G network in the States. It’s got an advanced 3G network. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this simple.

What’s going on?

T-Mobile is advertising how much coverage it has for its 4G network. It has released info on the rollout of the network to six more cities in the States. The problem is that the network T-Mobile is building is a HSPA+ network – and while it’s very fast it is not 4G, it’s 3G.

Ok, so what IS 3G?

3G is the current state of cutting edge mobile networks. “1G” is the basic phone service – any network that can carry a phone call is 1G. “2G” came along in the 90s, when phones started to carry digital signals as well. While this allowed mobile devices to perform more  tasks, it was extremely limited and extremely slow. The really big step was 3G, where mobile networks became capable of transmitting a lot of data, with multimedia and internet functions.

The network that T-Mobile is building runs on technology called HSPA+ – which is an extremely fast form of 3G network. It’s what you might call “Super 3G”. It handles data so robustly that operators can run every single network function through Internet Protocol – allowing voice, data and SMS to be bundled together into a more easily manageable service.

Fine. So what’s 4G?

That’s where things get a bit tricky. The definition of 4G is still kind of in negotiation. Each time a new “G” has been added, it’s because truly sweeping changes have occurred. 2G ushered in the era of the text message – SMS. 3G allowed complex data services to run on phones, and lead directly to the creation of the iPhone and the age of mobile applications. 4G has to be big, and it hasn’t been clearly defined yet.

Who will define it?

There’s actually a clear answer to that question: the International Telecommunications Union. It is tasked with defining what 4G will be, and it won’t have finished creating the standard until next year at least. It has said that 4G will move beyond 3G. Perhaps most tellingly it says 4G “represents a wireless telecommunication platform that has the flexibility to accommodate services that are yet to be imagined.”

And in October 2009, it received 6 submissions for the position. Last month, the International Telecommunications Union pretty clearly stated that only two of those submissions were up to scratch: “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” (you can see the report in more detail here). As you can see, neither of those is HSPA+

Is it really that important?

You might ask “who cares?” Well, a lot of people. 4G is meant to be the great step in mobile telecommunications. While the mobile data and internet industry is growing rapidly, it hasn’t arrived yet. It’s still in flux, and the vast majority of consumers are sticking to their feature phones. There are huge questions hanging over Quality of Service for mobile data, and many operators are scrabbling to keep afloat in a new data-heavy environment that they’re not yet equipped to handle. For T-Mobile to decide, in the middle of all this, that they’re going to start calling their 3G services 4G is incredibly irresponsible. It’s like adding a small motor to a pushbike, and calling it a Superbike.

How do you think a consumer would feel if they had that scam pulled on them? This is not hugely different. T-Mobile is selling one thing to it’s subscribers, and calling it another.

About Cian O' Sullivan

Ace reporter, Cian, has moved on from GoMo News. He is currently the office manager for Photocall Ireland - Ireland's premier news and PR photography agency. You can check out the site at www.photocallireland.com. If you want to contact him directly about anything, Cian's new email is cian at photocallireland dot com.
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7 Responses to T-Mobile, your HSPA+ network is not 4G

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  2. Ward360 says:

    the definitionof 4g from what I understand is speeds in excess of 100 Mb. Nobody is anywhere near that.

    Tmobile calling their hpsa+ 4g is just a slap at the other company calling their network 4g. No one has “4g” yet.

    You should get your facts straight mr.publisher, 4g is a speed not a protocall.

    Oh, yea, tmobile also does not charge extra for their not 4g but faster then the other guys not 4g data plan

    Sent this from my phone on 3g, so no spell check or proof read was involved

  3. Cian says:

    Astounding work there, Ward.

    Tell you what, here are some links you should visit. They’ve got a lot of good information about the development and future of the 4G standard:


  4. jamie says:

    Ward you are incorrect. 4G is a set of network protocols which definitely contains LTE and possibly Wi-Max although that is yet to be ratified. LTE will be the general flavour of adoption for most network operators as it is an organic progression from 3G switches and so on.

    The only network in the US to actually have real 4G is surprisingly MetroPCS which is using LTE in Las Vegas and Baltimore and is currently running already. They have one handset supporting it which is only for sale in areas which it covers. Interestingly they are using the higher speed of data to increase network capacity as opposed to offering superfast mobile data to users.

    Verizon will follow shortly with LTE next year. Sprint ’4G’ handsets are using Wi-Max which in fact gives them more right to use the 4G term than T-Mobile although not strictly official yet.

    We’ve had HSDPA and HSPA+ (22m/bit) in Europe for some time now and it is definately not 4G. We’re waiting for the 300mbit promised by LTE.

  5. anonymous says:

    If you think about it, true 4G is not really offered in the States. Advanced 3G and 4G “beta”/”lite” is all we will get for now. WiMAX, HSPA+ and LTE being that in that lovely grey area. So far I don’t see any LTE Advanced nor WirelessMAN-Advanced currently available State side making 4G still a pipe dream for us. =/

  6. Ryumast3r says:

    I love how everyone keeps ripping in to T-Mobile for calling their network 4G. Fact is, even if Verizon and Sprint are using similar protocols (wimax or LTE), they aren’t 4G yet. ALL OF THE COMPANIES ARE DOING IT.

    Bit-for-bit though, for a while, T-Mobile’s was the fastest non-4G network in the US (out of the major carriers – AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile).

  7. Pingback: New to Blackberry, Not What I Expected... - BlackBerry Forums at CrackBerry.com

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