Will the Real 4G Please Stand Up?

ITU Headquarters in Geneva

The tech world loves numbers, feature-driven marketing and pedantic arguments over … well, technicalities, which is why the wireless debate du jour is over 4G. As operators roll out faster networks that are built using acronym-heavy standards such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), 802.16 (WiMAX) or HSPA+, it’s hardly a surprise that every press release is touting 4G, which presumably stands for the fourth generation wireless network. Only, according to the International Telecommunications Union, they are all making stuff up, pretending it’s 4G when it’s not.

Once again, marketing departments have pushed out this concept of 4G networks years before the engineers even decided what a 4G network was. Well, last month, the engineers finally got together to determine what makes a 4G network. They are about two years too late.

Why? Because the marketers have grown ever more bold in declaring any new network rollout to be 4G. Who’s right? Here’s what you really need to know (plus some stuff you probably don’t, just in case you find yourself in one of those pedantic arguments) about 4G:

The Real 4G According to Engineers. In October 2009, the ITU fielded 6 candidates that could meet the true definition of 4G. The main criteria required speed boosts, but more importantly, new technologies that make more efficient use of spectrum, as well as an ability to work with other radio access systems and fixed wireline networks. The standard also requires that equipment makers provide features that will help guarantee the quality of service on wireless networks. Last month, the ITU declared the upcoming LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced the only true 4G wireless technologies.

True 4G calls for peak speeds of 100 Mbps for mobile applications such as driving a car down the road, and 1 Gigabit per second for fixed networks. To achieve such speeds, operators will need five to ten times as much spectrum as most are using now to deploy LTE, as well as complex antenna configurations (8×8 MIMO) that require some new antennas at the tower and more inside the mobile devices. Some operators won’t ever get to that point. Others might, but it’s going to take four or five years before people start rolling out anything like the ITU’s version of 4G.

The 4G We’re Getting Today.

Sure, the 4G of today is really faux 4G which now comes in three flavors thanks to a bold marketing effort by T-Mobile. It’s HSPA+ network is most assuredly 3G (or maybe 3.5G for some) but as its CTO, Neville Ray, argues with Om, its real-world speeds are better than those offered by WiMAX and are comparable to the real-world expectations of Verizon’s LTE network launching later this year. The key to T-Mo’s experience lies in its spectrum resources. As a general rule, the more spectrum an operator has, the more lanes in its highway it can cram bits into. It can use that to increase capacity or increase speeds. With plans to move from 21 Mbps to 42 Mbps speeds using HSPA+, T-Mo is going for speed in order to keep up with the Jones.

As for Clearwire (s clwr) and Sprint (s S) who are together on the Good Ship WiMAX, both have dealt with criticism that their service isn’t really 4G, yet people still are buying the 4G phones on offer and don’t seem to care what the ITU says. My hunch is that Verizon’s LTE network, which also won’t be 4G, won’t have any trouble establishing its 4G credibility either.

After all, marketers pushing LTE first starting waving the 4G flag, despite the fact that the ITU hadn’t yet weighed in on whether LTE met the criteria. The initial releases don’t. We’ll have to wait for LTE-Advanced in about four or five years for true 4G, and by then, it’s possible we’ll be dealing with 5G networks or maybe something even better the marketers offer up. In the meantime, consumers will buy their faux 4G phones for their faux 4G networks and never sweat the difference.

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