“4G” is a marketing term, except when it’s not

Flag of the International Telecommunication Union
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Today, Verizon will hold a press conference officially announcing the launch of the company’s 4G LTE network in 38 major cities. This means little for us here in Bozeman, of course. Verizon does not expect to have the whole country covered with its 4G LTE network until 2013.

Even though today’s announcement won’t affect us at all for now, I thought it would be worthwhile trying to explain what a 4G network is, because there seems to be a lot of confusion about it. After all, Sprint and T-Mobile also have 4G networks, don’t they?

Not exactly. “4G” is a marketing term as much as it is a communications standard, or as a spokesman for Verizon told CNN Money writer David Goldman, “All ‘4G’ is not the same.”

Typically, a group called the International Telecommunication Union decides on standards for things like 4G. The ITU is a United Nations group that’s been around for 145 years (yes, longer than the UN itself), coordinating the shared use of the radio spectrum.

The ITU refers to 4G as “IMT-Advanced” and says that an IMT-Advanced cellular network must have “enhanced peak data rates” for mobile users of 100 megabits per second. (Rates of 1 gigabit per second are expected for “low mobility” usage of the network, such as wi-fi.)

The IMT-Advanced project was launched back in 2002, and in October 2009, six technologies were submitted to the ITU as candidates for 4G designation. Two technologies, “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced,” were given official IMT-Advanced designations, meaning that they are true 4G networks.

From the ITU news release about LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced:

These technologies will now move into the final stage of the IMT-Advanced process, which provides for the development in early 2012 of an ITU-R Recommendation specifying the in-depth technical standards for these radio technologies.

Let’s take a break for a glossary check.

  • 3G = “third generation”
  • 4G = “fourth generation”
  • LTE = “long-term evolution”
  • megabit = 1 million bits or 0.125 megabytes
  • gigabit = 128 megabytes
  • IMT = “international mobile telecommunications”

So, we know that a “true” 4G network would meet all of the ITU standards. However, those standards aren’t set in stone yet. Standards-defining groups typically move at a glacial pace, much too slow for the world of marketing and PR, so many companies have just started calling their networks “4G” with no regard for what ITU says.

As Goldman writes:

It’s mostly a matter of PR, industry experts say. Explaining what the wireless carriers’ new networks should be called, and what they’ll be capable of, is a confusing mess.

Or as industry consultant Dan Hays told Goldman:

“Historically, ITU’s classification system has not held a great degree of water and has not been used to enforce branding,” Hays said. “Everyone started off declaring themselves to be 4G long before the official decision on labeling was made. The ITU was three to four years too late to make an meaningful impact on the industry’s use of the term.”

All of this is to say that the acronyms, letter-digit combinations and jargon mentioned in cell phone commercials is mostly bunk. Yes, network speeds are increasing and capacity is growing, but don’t be impressed by every new string of letters a carrier types in front of its network’s name.