Marketing the '4G' experience no easy matter

Lynnette LunaMuch debate has emerged over the term "4G" and the fact that mobile operators are applying it to their various flavors of high-speed data networks--despite the fact that none of today's technologies is officially 4G.

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) call WiMAX 4G, T-Mobile USA now brags that its HSPA+ network is the largest 4G network in the country, MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) calls its slower LTE network 4G and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) will come to market next month using the marketing term "4G LTE." Meanwhile, the International Telecommunication Union recently ratified LTE-Advanced and WiMAX's 802.16m as official 4G standards--not WiMAX, HSPA+ or LTE.

That action, of course, is not stopping operators from using the 4G label, and it has come to the point of no return. Verizon Wireless couldn't very well call its service something else when its competitors are bragging about their 4G advantages. Consumers may not know exactly what 4G is, but they get the idea that it must be a pretty important feature.

At this point there really is no clear marketing delineation as to how one operator's "4G" is better than another's, except for the fact that T-Mobile says its footprint is bigger. Verizon's challenge will be to set apart its 4G experience from those of its competitors. And so far Verizon's marketing message looks complicated.

Will consumers respond to the use of 4G as a marketing term? The graphic on Verizon's LTE webpage that aims to compare its LTE network with HSPA+ offered by AT&T and T-Mobile clearly shows LTE being faster, but that of course is based on certain network principals, such as the amount of spectrum used, which Verizon notes in the fine print.

Verizon also risks over-hyping its technology. As Jeff Belk, managing director of ICT168 Capital, points out in a recent GigaOm article, Verizon may be over-promising through a statement like this on the "What can I do with it?" section of its LTE website: "Stream your favorite director's cut without annoying buffering. Or better yet, download and view full-length HD quality movies. ... Watch live TV in mobile high definition right on your laptop."

While high-speed mobile broadband networks are ushering new opportunities for operators, they also represent great marketing challenges. It's no longer about who has the best coverage and call quality. It's about the "4G" experience, and why that is better than the competitor's "4G" experience. That's not that easy to pin down without over-complicating or over-promising. --Lynnette