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Has 4G become meaningless?

4G meaningless smartphones data carriers lteRecently, the investment firm Piper Jaffray conducted a study that found a full 47 percent of U.S. consumers don’t feel the need for 4G. This isn’t good news for the carriers, which have been fiercely touting their 4G networks for a few years now. Almost all new smartphones have some kind of 4G connectivity, including the new iPhone, at long last.

Part of consumers’ apathy over 4G might come from their inability to understand the difference between different flavors of it. The same survey found that 51 percent of consumers said that all 4G networks are the same.

That’s bad news for an industry as competitive as wireless communication, with recent marketing campaigns based upon name calling as a means of brand differentiation. With carriers betting ever more heavily upon data tiers as a main revenue stream, what can carriers do about consumers who don’t seem to understand their services?

How to be 4G

Confusion is the name of the game, and the carriers haven’t helped explain to consumers the benefits of 4G. Commercial mobile technologies are standardized by a complex number of bodies such as the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), the 3GGP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Still reading? Good. They are tasked with bickering until they set a strict, definite standard for each iteration.

These powers that be hold conferences, conduct studies, and perform secret ritual sacrifices in order to define what it each G – or generation – actually means. 4G is, of course the next numerical step, but the powers stumbled when it came to defining what that actually meant.

Strange encounters of the fourth generation

The 4G war got off to a specular fail from a marketing standpoint. There were many, vastly different technologies all vying for subscribers.

Sprint tried to get the ball rolling with WiMAX in 2008, a technology descended from the same tech in your Wi-Fi router. It was branded 4G, though real-life speeds were often more equivalent to a particularly fast 3G device. This was promising, but Sprint eventually declared the technology dead and migrated to LTE (Long Term Evolution, if you were curious). One down.

T-Mobile further muddied the waters with an upgrade to HSPA+, which is technically more like 3.5G, but which has been branded 4G.

AT&T had a wide, but much decried 3G network (partly blamed on iPhone exclusivity for years). While AT&T deploys its 4G LTE network nationwide, it’s also making things needlessly confusing by offering HSPA+ alongside, and branding it 4G just like T-Mobile. If you have an AT&T iPhone 4S, you might see a 4G logo appear sometimes, but it’s not the “true” 4G LTE you would get by upgrading to an iPhone 5.

Verizon launched a 4G LTE network in late 2010 – in its truest sense – it fulfilled the 4G guidelines.

Simple, right?

Setting low bars

No. Not simple, at all. Once the carriers got to building their new networks, the powers that be decided to change the definition of 4G. They lowered the minimum speed guidelines, so that carriers wouldn’t have to do too much heavy lifting, meaning that 4G networks would not be as revolutionary as they had first planned. Hence the bickering over “true” 4G. On top of that, building 4G networks gave carriers a chance to improve their existing networks with beefier backhaul – the connections that tie cell towers back to the backbone of the Internet. This greatly improved 3G speeds and availability, closing the gap between 3G and 4G.

cell tower 4g data speedsIt’s not surprising that the average consumer doesn’t care about 4G when they don’t get it, and 3G networks are progressively getting better. Coverage matters more than speed to many people — a souped-up network means squat if there isn’t a tower in your area.

The consumers don’t care

With so many different carrier definitions of 4G, and even an official designation that’s a moving target, it’s hardly surprising that people are confused. So what can the carriers do?

Agree on a standard speed definition. This is probably impossible, because the telecom industry is notorious for talking at, rather than with each other. But setting a baseline speed for 4G would at least let customers know what they’re being promised.

Stop slapping 4G on everything. This is really aimed at AT&T and T-Mobile, which are allowed to brand older HSPA+ 3G tech as 4G due to a magical shift in definitions back in 2010. While this is legal, it confuses people to a point where they don’t care.

Stop lying about speeds. Advertised speeds are not the same as real world speeds. T-Mobile might advertise 42mbps, but that’s the theoretical limit. That doesn’t look so rosy when you’re getting 45kbps downloads. Averages work much better, and leave less room for error.

Change phone branding conventions. While some handset-makers are responsible for this, it isn’t in a carrier’s best interest to have a phone named after wireless services. For example: The HTC EVO 4G LTE. Not the easiest name to understand. This particular model caused a friend to ask “What is a 4G?” as if it were some kind of new device. Apple keeps it simple with 3, 4s, 5 and so on. Heck, even Samsung does with its flagship line of Galaxy phones (S2, S3). I wonder where that inspiration came from?

Conclusion

The carriers have themselves to blame for the consumer confusion they’re currently stewing in. Unexplained acronyms, incompatible networks, technologies that vanish as soon as they’ve appeared – it’s as if they’re running Area 51, not voice and data networks. Carriers have the leverage to make the average consumer more interested in 4G, but it’s all up to them.

More speed is nice, but most of us would just settle for better reception. After all, if a guy with a mohawk can put a robot on Mars with less cash than it took to put on the Olympics, why can’t I have cell reception in an elevator?