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4G definition creates marketing free-for-all

By Stephen Lawson
November 5, 2010 06:00 AM ET

IDG News Service - Now that LTE and WiMax officially are not 4G, use of that heavily advertised term is a free-for-all -- at least until it comes time to name the next wave of mobile networks.

T-Mobile USA launched an advertising campaign on Wednesday for a "4G service" running on its HSPA+ (High-Speed Packet Access) network. The move ruffled feathers among some industry observers because HSPA+ is an upgrade to T-Mobile's 3G service rather than a new technology.

"I'm afraid that carriers desperate for one-upmanship will make 4G a meaningless technical term," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said in an e-mail interview. "All it's going to mean is that it's faster than the last network you were on."

But T-Mobile's new marketing push -- it had previously advertised "4G speeds" -- came just a few weeks after the International Telecommunication Union left all current networks out of its official definition of 4G.

The only technologies that will qualify as 4G are a future version of LTE (Long-Term Evolution), to be called LTE-Advanced, and the next generation of WiMax, officially known as IEEE 802.16m or WirelessMAN-Advanced, according to the ITU's Radiocommunication Sector.

Neither of these is expected to go live commercially until 2014 or 2015, because the ITU said its target for 4G is a speed of 100M bps (bits per second) downstream with high mobility and 1G bps with limited mobility. So LTE and WiMax, which have been advertised as 4G for years, have no official claim on the title either.

The war of words over 4G is nothing new. Before there was a technical definition from the ITU or ubiquitous advertising by carriers, there were spectrum licensing requirements by national governments. Certain blocks of frequencies auctioned off or assigned in recent years have come with a requirement that they be used for next-generation mobile networks instead of 3G, said Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall. This was one reason the backers of WiMax fought so hard to make sure their technology was defined as something new.

The battle over the use of 4G seems to be most heated in the U.S., said Marshall, who is based in Boston. Most carriers in Western Europe are following the same well-defined path from HSPA to LTE, while in Asia, WiMax and LTE have sharply staked out the 4G territory. In many developing countries, these two technologies are being deployed first for residential broadband, he said.

Both WiMax and LTE truly are a new type of network, although they are similar to each other. Both are IP (Internet Protocol) networks from end to end, and both use a technology called OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing Access). In addition, each has a migration path to one of the super-fast future networks that will be officially 4G, Marshall said.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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