4G fog thickens as AT&T upgrades vocabulary
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.
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