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?