5G doesn’t exist yet. Let’s stop abusing the term

I’m a bit concerned that we in tech blogging community are doing the mobile industry’s marketing for them. This week a few tech sites published posts that attached the term “5G” to T-Mobile’s forthcoming rollout of LTE-Advanced technologies.

It’s not my intention here to to attack my peers, but I think it’s necessary to point out we’re descending a slippery slope if we start tossing around the term 5G loosely. 5G doesn’t exist except as the barest concept. It hasn’t been defined by any standards body. The mobile industry only recently began addressing what constitutes 5G, assigning its biggest brains to investigate the technologies that might make up 5G networks in the future.

mobile phone and telecommunication towersI understand the frustration of my fellow tech bloggers. Presented with a bunch of byzantine acronyms, how do you explain to the average reader the differences between an HSPA network and HSPA+ network, or between an LTE and an LTE-Advanced network, in a single sentence? When dealing in headlines of limited length and Twitter posts of 140 characters, it’s easy to fall into the comfortable trap of using terms like 4G and 5G to explain the differences in technologies (I’m guilty of falling into that same trap as well).

But I think we owe it to our readers to spell out those nuances. Otherwise we’re not truly explaining mobile technology. Instead, we’re just repeating the marketing messages of carriers and vendors that have every interest in exaggerating the capabilities of their networks.

To my knowledge, T-Mobile isn’t publicly labeling its forthcoming network as 5G, but the operator has a reputation for this kind of technology inflation. In 2010, T-Mobile relabeled its HSPA+ service as 4G out of the blue. I had some sympathy for T-Mobile at the time, because it was presented with a quandary: Sprint(s s) had long used the term 4G to describe its WiMAX network, but T-Mobile’s ostensible 3G network was routinely beating Sprint in raw speed tests.

Instead of trying to explain the differences to its customers – which admittedly would have been quite difficult — T-Mobile took the easy way out and simply claimed 4G as its own. Of course, that led AT&T(s t) to do the same for its even slower 14.4 Mbps HSPA+ network. Eventually, the standards body responsible for defining the various ‘G’s, the International Telecommunication Union, caved to industry pressure and retroactively defined 4G as pretty much whatever carriers wanted it be.

ATT-4G-LTE-Logo4G became a meaningless term, and we tech journalists reinforced its meaninglessness by swallowing the terminology carriers fed us. If carriers get their hooks into the acronym 5G, you can bet the exact same thing will happen. Once one carrier succumbs, others will race to redefine their perfectly serviceable 4G networks as 5G networks. An the next operator to gain the slightest technical edge will start bandying about the term 6G.

I’m not dissing T-Mobile’s technical accomplishments. As I’ve written before, T-Mobile’s new LTE network, by virtue of its newness, has definite advantages over other carriers’ networks. T-Mobile will be able to upgrade to new LTE-Advanced technologies faster and cheaper than its competitors. But T-Mobile certainly doesn’t have an LTE-Advanced network today, it won’t have one in the near future and it will be years before it can legitimately make the claim to owning one. LTE-Advanced is an incremental technology, and many of its key techniques aren’t even commercially available to carriers yet.

In my opinion, carriers are already abusing the term LTE-Advanced. They haven’t started compounding that abuse by advertising their current or forthcoming LTE networks as 5G, but it’s only a matter of time. Let’s not help them along by doing their marketing for them.