The 4G marketing message is getting very muddled

Sue MarekOver the past few years I've written numerous articles about 4G. I've dissected the various pros and cons of WiMAX vs. LTE, analyzed the applications that many companies claim will drive consumers to adopt 4G, and monitored the deployment timelines and market launches of WiMAX and LTE operators.

And through it all I've been chastised numerous times by industry observers who were upset that I used the term "4G" in conjunction with WiMAX and LTE. You see, many technologists bristle at the industry's loose use of "4G." 

Engineers look to the International Telecommunications Union for strict definitions of what constitutes 2G, 3G or 4G. And it wasn't until late last month that the ITU assessed six technologies, harmonized them into two technologies, and designated them as 4G. So for engineers, LTE-Advanced and WiMAX 802.16m are now officially "4G" technologies--and nothing else will fit the bill.

But I think 4G as a technical standard is very different from 4G as a marketing message. And I believe it's a losing battle to be a stickler about only using the term 4G for LTE-Advanced or WiMAX 802.16m. When operators started using 3G in their advertisements and marketing materials to tout the speed and sophistication of their wireless networks, 3G no longer was just a technical designation, it became a marketing pitch. And now the same thing is occurring with 4G.

In fact, 4G is even more controversial because T-Mobile USA just this week decided to designate its HSPA+ network as "America's largest 4G network." HSPA and its various iterations--HSPA 7.2, HSPA+ and beyond--have long been considered a 3G technology.

Do you think "4G" should be used as a marketing term? : I'm sure several Tier 1 operators are bristling over T-Mobile's new marketing campaign. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) 4G President Matt Carter responded to my inquiry on T-Mobile's actions with a classic quote: "Halloween is over--it's time for T-Mobile to stop dressing up like their favorite super hero--Sprint 4G." Sprint, of course, has been trumpeting its 4G mobile broadband service, which it calls Sprint 4G, for the past two years. The company offers the service via Clearwire's (NASDAQ:CLWR) mobile WiMAX network.

I think the real question is whether consumers think a 4G network is better than a 3G network. According to a recent Yankee Group study, aggressive marketing for 4G services and devices has only served to confuse consumers. In fact, nearly three-fourths of users in Yankee Group's 2010 Anywhere Consumer study said that they do not know or understand what 4G is. And even more surprising, after years of marketing efforts, more than 50 percent of consumers still don't know what 3G is.

So perhaps instead of bickering over what is 4G, the real solution for operators is to stop using industry terms like 3G and 4G as marketing messages to consumers and instead come up with marketing messages that really resonate. When I asked T-Mobile USA's Mark McDiarmid, senior director of engineering and operations, why the company decided to use 4G as part of its marketing message, he didn't respond directly, and instead said: "Consumers will tell us what they understand and what they don't understand. But when they use T-Mobile's network, they enjoy it." 

According to the Yankee Group study, consumers have spoken and the message is clear: They don't understand what 4G is. Isn't it time to go back to the drawing board and find another marketing message? --Sue