Are operators misleading consumers by claiming HSPA+ is 4G?

Like its predecessor "3G," the term "4G" is rapidly evolving from an industry standard to a marketing term. This has been particularly evident over the past few months as we have seen T-Mobile USA and now AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) make claims that their HSPA+ networks, which previously were considered 3G technology, are 4G.

Some may argue that this is a good thing because it entices consumers to upgrade to the latest wireless innovation. However, I fear that it may just create more confusion and ultimately render the term 4G meaningless to consumers.

When the industry first envisioned 4G networks, the focus was not just on speed. The real vision for 4G was all the innovations that these future networks would offer--from remote videoconferencing to connecting wireless appliances and automobiles.

But now that 4G networks are finally becoming a reality, all the 4G marketing messages focus solely on faster network speed. In fact, it was network speed that originally caused T-Mobile to claim that its HSPA+ network was 4G because it offered 4G-like speeds.

And now AT&T, which was a very vocal critic of T-Mobile's decision, is jumping on that bandwagon. When I spoke with Mark Collins, vice president of consumer voice and data services at AT&T Mobility yesterday, he explained AT&T's rationale by saying that the company had to respond to competitors which were calling their offerings 4G even though AT&T's network was faster. "They [competitors] were talking about something that leads the consumer to believe they are faster than we are but we know that they aren't. So why would we let them make that claim?" Collins said.

He added: "We will have 4G speeds on our HSPA+ network as we build out that network and we will get faster with LTE."

I understand Collins' point. When T-Mobile said last year that its HSPA+ network was faster than AT&T's network, it basically forced AT&T's hand.  Nevertheless, I think AT&T should feel a little silly for suddenly making this switch. The company is now doing exactly what it chastised T-Mobile for doing--misleading the customer by labeling HSPA+ as a 4G technology. -Sue

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