3G vs. 4G: Who cares?

Peter Jarich current analysisBack in high school I used to drive an old Chevy Blazer. This was before SUVs were all the rage, so many people referred to it as my "truck." This bugged me to no end. I'm not sure why it mattered so much, but in my mind I didn't drive a "truck" and couldn't stand it when anyone suggested otherwise.

This little trip down memory lane comes thanks to the recent arguments around 4G and which technologies get to associate themselves with the label.

If you haven't followed these minor debates the core issue is easy to follow. Based on the notion that 4G will be technically defined by what the ITU qualifies as IMT-Advanced (with IMT 2000 being 3G), neither LTE nor WiMAX look to actually be 4G--and yet operators as well as vendors have been selling them as such.  Tomorrow versions of the technologies (802.16m and LTE-Advanced) will likely make the grade, but nobody's waiting for them to appear before pulling out the term. I've seen this called out in various columns and editorials over the past few months. I've seen this in various blogs and Twitter threads. It came up when T-Mobile USA dared to position its HSPA+ network performance as "4G-like." 

I get the fixation with accuracy around naming. In the same way I didn't want anyone calling my Chevy Blazer a truck, I've objected to calling WiMAX or LTE "4G." Personally, I prefer the somewhat more awkward term, "proto-4G." That said, I do not understand the sudden focus on technical and standards precision. Beyond the fact that WiMAX operators have been calling their launches 4G for several years, it's unclear where the real issue lies. Who loses out? Who should object? How would they?

 I've heard the finger pointed at a number of different constituencies, but the arguments just don't add up.

  • The ITU. As the body that gets to decide what technologies count as 4G, the ITU is an obvious place to look for consternation over mislabeling things like WiMAX and LTE. Forget for a moment that they don't own the term. Forget for a moment that 4G is a marketing tool, not actually a technical thing. Forget for a moment that they haven't made any noise over the issue yet. What could they do if they did object? 
  • Analysts and market watchers. If your job is tracking the pace of 4G market momentum, network deployments and service uptake, confusion over what qualifies could be a problem. After all, if operators differ in the way they talk about 4G, using their market claims and status updates to track the market could be fruitless. Of course, this is why people pay market watchers good money for their work; because it's not always easy. At the same time, I'm not sure that your average person will care about the momentum of "true 4G" vs. the momentum of technologies that represent a break with 3G whether it's in the air interface or core--those technologies being WiMAX and LTE (in their current of technically 4G forms).
  • Consumers. Will consumers be confused by cellcos simultaneously selling them 3G, 4G and 4G-like services? Maybe. But, which ones? Power users who really care about the speed of the connection will likely know the differences and know what the technologies can actually offer them. They'll also be buying services based on performance claims rather than marketing monikers. Mainstream users--those who might not know the speeds they want or require--are bound to be a little confused. This is why operators are moving on terms like "4G-like." They need to find some way to square performance issues with marketing fluff to actually help consumers make informed service decisions. When my wife asks me to buy Jello, she doesn't care if I bring home store-brand gelatin. As long as the service performs, few consumers will care if it's 3G, 4G, 3G+, πG or something in between. 

There's one audience I've left out here: national regulators. They may matter most, because they decide which technologies can be deployed in which spectrum bands. If they limit some bands to IMT-Advanced technologies, then it obviously matters if a technology falls into this bucket. Luckily, regulators around the world seem to be embracing the notion of spectral flexibility (hence the focus on re-farming). Even if they haven't, the fact remains that "4G" is a marketing term, not a purely technical one--making it difficult to argue that anyone is actually abusing it. This seems to be the fact that gets ignored most often, or maybe it's just not understood. 4G is a marketing term. It may have technical connotations, but marketers will use it as they see fit. If that helps consumers--technical or otherwise--better understands the capabilities of a service, all the better.

Peter Jarich is an analyst with Current Analysis.