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Posted at 2:03 PM ET, 01/ 8/2011

4G fog thickens as AT&T upgrades vocabulary

By Rob Pegoraro

LAS VEGAS -- CES would not be CES without a surplus of cryptic abbreviations. But while most of these shorthand terms have agreed-upon meanings, that's not the case with "4G," the term wireless carriers use for a variety of upgraded services.

Before the show, we already had a situation where Sprint and Verizon were building out 4G networks (Sprint's using a technology called WiMax, Verizon's on a standard called LTE, short for "Long Term Evolution") while T-Mobile had moved from touting its improved 3G "HSPA+" service as "the nation's fastest wireless 3G network" to labeling it "4G."


Now AT&T Wireless is following T-Mobile in giving an HSPA service a linguistic upgrade to 4G. In a press release, it calls itself "the only U.S. company committed to delivering 4G using both HSPA+ and LTE technologies."

That is, it's promising what it calls 4G speeds -- up to 6 million bits per second -- on cell sites with faster wired "backhaul" connections up to the rest of the Internet. Later on, it will bring LTE to those sites.

So it's now applying the 4G label to such new phones as the Samsung Infuse 4G, seen above imprisoned in a plastic case at Samsung's exhibit on the show floor.

AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan defended this 4G rechristening in a blog post, writing that "Our HSPA+ network and upgraded backhaul is expected to deliver speed performance similar to initial LTE deployments."

But I've seen Verizon's LTE service offer downloads in the 20-Mbps range, as have other reviewers.

You could craft a different argument by noting a mid-December decision by the International Telecommunications Union to relax its definition of 4G. Where that standards-setting body had refused to certify WiMax or LTE, let alone enhanced 3G, as "4G," it now gives its tepid blessing to using the 4G moniker for WiMax and LTE as well as "other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities."

AT&T, however, clearly distinguished between its two network upgrades until recently. A February 2010 press release pledges that HSPA+ will support "a considerable boost in 3G speeds," and an April 2010 post by Donovan refers to "the faster 3G speeds enabled by HSPA 7.2."

And at some point, AT&T will have to figure out how to distinguish between its HSPA 4G and the kind delivered by LTE, which should be considerably faster if it lives up to its promise. What do you call the new network? "4.5G"? "Faster 4G"?

Bethesda telecom analyst Gary Arlen -- here attending his 30th CES -- joked last night that you could also slap "5G" on a phone to trump the entire "What is 4G?" debate.

If anybody has strong feelings about telecom abbreviations on a Saturday, please share them in the comments. Or let me know what else you'd like me to check out on my last day covering CES.

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 8, 2011; 2:03 PM ET
Categories:  CES 2011, Telecom  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: CES 2011: Day 3 preview
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Your writing is the only sensible....and 'almost readable'....commentary extant on this subject of new electronic gadgetry.

Please don't be offended when I say 'almost readable' because in order for you to cover the convention-atmospherics you are forced to use the exact jargon presented to you by the very marketers of this new stuff. You're an excellent editor-cryptanalyst.

Your talent shows in your ability to decipher their gleeful creations of incomprehensible verbiage...their acronyms apparently aimed towards potential new customers who themselves are trying much too hard to be seen as being "hip" or "cutting edge" armed with quivering credit cards.

I wore a broad smile when I looked at your video-clip in which you remarked that you were there with about "twenty six thousand of your closest friends".

Nice quip, Rob....enjoying your columns.

Posted by: CharlesGriffith1 | January 8, 2011 9:43 PM | Report abuse


From my point of view, AT&T’s “4g” announcement is really a capitulation of the marketplace. The “deal was sealed” when tMobile began to call its HSPA+ network “4G”and few in the media called them on it. What is getting lost in all of this is a fundamental question. 4G, 3G what does it matter what it is called.

The real question is, “What network provides the best environment to accomplish an persons goals?”

It seems to me that AT&T has embarked on a pathway that is focused on an ecosystem of networks, devices and support that are enablers of people doing what they need to do. Something that often gets lost in the shuffle is the wifi network that AT&T has deployed and continues to deploy. They maintain the largest wifi service included in the cost of their data plans and this is available right now with many at&t devices including all of the iPhones, android, windows7 and many Blackberry models.

This means that more people with more devices have access to a network that allows them the ability to get more done faster and without a need to upgrade or change their device.

As the deployment of HSPA+ AND LTE continues, the device mix will continue to evolve. However, if you are with AT&T many of your present devices will be able to take advantage of faster access speed and unlike Verizon (or tMobile, Sprint, etc.) can be accessed with many, many devices currently available like the existing 3G iPad.

So all in all, I say AT&T has the best and most consumer friendly strategy. They may be a bit slower in rolling out a specific technology, but they are in the active midst of creating the best overall network experience that will become clearer and clearer as time goes on.


Posted by: jwsnowden | January 9, 2011 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Absent a strict technical definition from an accepted standards-setting body such as IEEE, labels are meaningless. Like “broadband”, the proof of the 4G pudding should be in tested throughput speeds using a variety of devices on the network at different locations within the network service area -- not just in the controlled environment of a test lab. What it is called doesn’t matter. What DOES matter is how fast it is.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | January 10, 2011 11:05 PM | Report abuse

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