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.