AT&T Extends 4G Farce At CES


If "4G" could be licensed as a trademarked term, its pitch might be "4G: Whatever you want it to be." AT&T's rebranding this week of its formerly 3G network as 4G because of a broadening of what can be termed a fourth-generation wireless service is only the latest and starkest example of how meaningless the label has become.  

Two months ago, T-Mobile USA began running ads boasting it operated "America's Largest 4G Network" and mocking the speed of AT&T's 3G service. AT&T and other critics complained that T-Mobile's HSPA+ network--which the carrier had previously touted as "the fastest 3G network--shouldn't be characterized as 4G at all.

Then last month, the International Telecommunications Union, the wireless standards setting body, announced that the term 4G could be applied to advanced 3G network technologies such as HSPA+, Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax, even while acknowledging 4G remains "undefined." Of course, Sprint had long since billed the HTC Evo smartphone running on its WiMax network as "America's First 4G Phone," and Verizon Wireless had been flogging the rollout of its LTE-based 4G network.

Never mind that none of the commercially available wireless services come close to meeting the 100 megabits-per-second download speed set by ITU as a requirement for 4G. As an agency of the United Nations, the ITU seems to have taken a diplomatic approach by easing the rules for what can be called 4G.

AT&T has taken full advantage. After criticizing T-Mobile last year for marketing its HSPA+ network as 4G, the nation's No. 2 carrier is now doing the same thing. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that AT&T "has subtly shifted its marketing message since [September], now proclaiming 'the nation's fastest mobile broadband network' instead of the fastest 3G network."

But did that fool anybody? AT&T was rated the worst among the major U.S. carriers in the latest Consumer Reports cell service survey. It doesn't matter how fast the network is if you can't get a connection in the first place or consistently. On Wednesday, AT&T announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that the rollout of its LTE-powered 4G network beginning this year will be completed by the end of 2013. This year it promises to release 20 4G devices, including both HSPA+ and LTE phones.

But if LTE is faster than HSPA+, shouldn't it be called a 5G network, according to the expedient marketing logic followed by the carriers? It will only take a suggestion by some penetrating marketing mind at one of the wireless operators to come up with that idea and touch off a new round of competing ad campaigns in which the carriers all claim to offer 5G service. Since there aren't any specifications or standards yet for 5G, what's to stop them?

6 comments about "AT&T Extends 4G Farce At CES ".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, January 6, 2011 at 5:04 p.m.

    One of Apple's biggest mistakes in the launch of the Smart Phone category will have been its exclusive arrangement with the most lame-ass network. Any iPhone success is in spite of this. Every time I see AT&T advertising another smart phone brand along with its network, I wonder how Apple could have done this without reciprocity, and without considering the actual quality or deep level of disdain people have for AT&T mobile.

    Isn't the AT&T 4G network made with Platformate?

  2. James p Campbell from LTE Network LLC, January 6, 2011 at 7:07 p.m.

    AT&T never subscribed to the use of 4G terminology to describe HSPA+ and WiMax. But now you say AT&T Extends the farce?... REALLY? The ITU is to be to blamed for allowing such farcical descriptions. Anybody who knows Mobile Broadband certainly realizes that NONE of these providers have accounted for TRUE LTE network capabilities yet. At least AT&T awaited an ITU decision to allow 4G to become a Marketing term rather than an actual definition of service capabilities. AT&T have never attempted to fool anybody. In fact that Consumer Reports article you love to reference has been challenged as wrong several times. Perhaps a read through an article written by a Business Professor and Acclaimed Author with real research will serve us all better:

    @ Mr Hutter... Apple's biggest mistake in the launch of the iPhone, was to not enough consultation with mobile phone engineers during product development. Perfect example of a computer maker adding functional support for a capability outside their scope of competency. The iPhone 4 still has antenna issues? I'd also add your deep level of disdain is not shared by the general population and suggest perhaps subscribing to a more objective blogger on this subject... Ever think Mr Walsh's VC interests may influence his opinion? AT&T's Mobile Broadband Network is by far the most reliable and robust anywhere! No other broadband mobile network today could support such intense data utilization and still effectively supply service. Fastest Mobile Broadband Network PERIOD. You want to get messages 10 minutes after their sent, feel free, I prefer to live in real time thanks!

  3. Mark Walsh from mediapost, January 6, 2011 at 8:46 p.m.

    What VC interests? I have none. You must be thinking of another Mark Walsh.

  4. Christopher Jones from GEICO, January 7, 2011 at 2:18 p.m.

    @James from AT&T

    The point is, AT&T was in the wrong for misusing the term 4G from the beginning. They did not wait until ITU gave the ok to start marketing their "4G" network speeds. Just because every other company does the same thing doesn't make it right. The point of the article was that AT&T is in the spotlight for using, what I would call, questionable ethics in their marketing campaign - albeit completely legally. Some may just call it saavy business tactics, but personally I don't like when companies purposely use misleading marketing knowing full well that the general public is not aware of the little details behind the scenes - i.e. public thinks 4G = megabits/second but AT&T (and other companies) mean 4th generation.

    I'm not going to bash AT&T and say they're the worst mobile service provider, that's not my area of expertise. I previously used AT&T for years before switching providers, and not because their speeds weren't what they claimed - they just didn't get good enough reception in the rural area I live and their customer service was rude on multiple occasions when I called in for assistance. In my book that doesn't make them a terrible company, they just didn't do enough to win over my continued business.

    As far as Apple being outside of their scope of competency with the iPhone 4 antenna issue, they did just fine with the first 3 iterations & correcting any minor issues so I would say they're still within their realm of competency.

  5. James p Campbell from LTE Network LLC, January 7, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.

    @ Mr Jones ... AT&T never used 4G in their marketing. That was my point. Sprint and T-Mob did all last year? Referencing enhanced 3G services that AT&T had in service as well, but did not consider that fully next gen. AT&T markets the industry studies done on network speed and reliability, which proved to be the fastest. So when the ITU last month approved the use of 4G for these enhancements such as HSPA+ and WiMax it simply turned 4G into a Marketing term. So only now, during CES did the 4G reference come about. Misuse of the term was actually challenged, forcing an ITU statement.

  6. Alan Helgeson from Ah Yeah Creative, January 11, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.

    If AT&T's 4G service is as spotty and lacking as the "faster" 3G service I have grudgingly paid a premium for since it's introduction, marketing semantics will be the least of AT&T's worries. Regardless of any "biggest," "fastest," or "most robust" claims, AT&T's service, in my real-world-user opinion, stinks (apologies for the non-technical assessment). Regardless of what Mr. Campbell and others at AT&T say is the gospel 4G truth, in the real world, the fact that so many of us AT&T customers are so incensed with the poor service, it's pretty likely that a consumer reckoning is coming. Especially now that Verizon will carry the iPhone and many (like me) have expiring contracts. What AT&T doesn't seem to understand is that real quality and satisfaction aren't relative, nor are they made up of marketing. Being the best of the worst still doesn't make you good. And calling something 4G to imply speed when you know it's just the latest marketing flavor of the day, then claiming innocence because a regulatory group said you could use's all a bit insulting.

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