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Analyst Angle: Will the real 4G please stand up

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly feature, Analyst Angle. We’ve collected a group of the industry’s leading analysts to give their outlook on the hot topics in the wireless industry.
Normally, I hate when marketing departments or sales guys get ahead of a standards body and start mis-using the upcoming standard as if it applied to their current products. I am referring to claims like “pre-WiMAX” which usually meant “not WiMAX at all.” Or 3D-ready TV, which means “not actually ready to show 3D.” Or when the cellular carriers called their 2.5G networks “3G.”
I always backed the International Telecommunications Union, which is the body that officially designates what constitutes 1, 2, 3, and 4G. They define the term, then the industry can talk the same standards-based language. But now, beyond 3G, many, many people are referring to current WiMAX and LTE – and even 3.5G-variants as “4G,” but the ITU definition clearly excludes these from 4G.
But this time, I’m going to side with the people jumping the gun. The ITU must be blind if they don’t see a significant disruptive change somewhere between their version of 3G and 4G. Our current 3G technologies, on a good day, give us around 1 megabits per second of service. Stretch that to HSPA+ 3.5G technologies, and you might get 3 Mbps. Yet the upcoming OFDM solutions from Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp., and AT&T Mobility as well as the HSPA++ from T-Mobile USA Inc. will bump those speeds up to the 6 to 8 Mbps neighborhood. This is almost a full 18-times increase over the initial real world (384 kilobits per second) speeds of 3G. I, for one, think anything over 10-times of an increase can drive disruptive change in usage, services, apps and latency-sensitive services. I think the current crop of new networks deserves to be considered a new generation.
ITU specifies that true 4G will have 100 Mbps download speeds for mobile users, and up to 1 gigabit per second for stationary users with strong signals. Wow! That’s smoking fast, but way out of reach for today’s technology. So Sprint Nextel was the first in the United States to refer to their WiMAX network as “4G.” Then T-Mobile USA, not to be outdone, is referring to their 3G HSPA+ network as “4G speeds,” since it’s actually faster than Sprint Nextel’s “4G.” So, of course Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility will refer to their LTE launches as “4G.” So far, it seems like one needs to use a lot of quotation marks around the current crop of “4G” offerings.
One could say the carriers are outright lying, but perhaps it’s just the cellular carrier marketing departments looking for a flare to signal customers that this is something different. Many consumers learned the term 3G, and it’s superior speed. This education happened in part by the little 3G icon on our phone screen, but also by the very visible marketing of the industry around 3G, notably including Apple Inc. So, this time, when the carriers are investing billions of dollars on spectrum, equipment, new towers and build-out for next-generation technologies, is if fair to say they are “lying” when they call it 4G? I think not. I think the blame for the confusion lies with the ITU.
Tech Real World Speed
Analog 1G: < 9,600 Kbps
GPRS 2G: 20 Kbps
UMTS 3G: 300 Kbps
Missing link: 8 Mbps
ITU’s 4G : 100 Mbps
The ITU is skipping a lot of significant progress without giving it a “G” designation. Surely an improvement of an order of magnitude, and a shift to all-IP is a generational change? 2G, when first achieved, offered us practical GPRS speeds of 20 kbps or so. 3G, when first achieved, offered speeds of around 300 Kbps or so. Doing some very rough math, that’s about a 15-times improvement between ITU-sanctioned generations of cellular technology. So if my friend Samir in Stockholm is getting 25 Mbps on his LTE downstream connection, which is an 83-times improvement, how is that not considered a generational leap? Add in greatly reduced latency, and also the fact that the new network is all-IP, from the edge through the core, and tell me how this isn’t a radical change in the way we connect our mobile devices. In fact, it is probably the most radical, most disruptive upgrade mobile networks have ever undergone.
Generally, the tech industry considers a 10-times bump revolutionary. It is one order of magnitude. Eighty-three-times is almost two orders of magnitude. So, this is where I stand. I reject the ITU official definition, and agree with the carrier’s de facto definition. Forthwith I shall refer to the current versions of LTE and WiMAX as 4G, and damn the ITU. I’ll even call T-Mobile USA’s HSPA++ 4G if it can match speeds with Clearwire Corp. and Verizon Wireless. It’s not just that everybody’s doing it, it’s that it’s right. So if you catch me on some stage or panel not being ITU-correct about “4G,” please refer to this article.
Derek Kerton runs the wireless strategy practice for the Kerton Group and is the chairman of The Telecom Council, an association for global telco executives and their ecosystem counterparts. Internationally recognized for his telecom industry insight, Kerton consults, advises, speaks and writes across a wide variety of telecom market, product, technology, IP, and financial topics. Kerton also sits on numerous advisory boards, is frequent chair and moderator in telecom industry conferences globally, and is quoted, published and interviewed globally on CNN, CNBC, BloombergTV, and Wall Street Journal. More industry research, analysis, and services available from the Kerton Group online at


Derek Kerton
Derek Kerton
Derek Kerton, principal analyst and head of our strategy practice, has 16 years experience in alliances, business development, management, strategy and implementation across software, infrastructure, applications and content for consumer and enterprise users. This distinguished experience combined with a Cornell MBA and profound knowledge of the market, and his relationships with key players in the telecom space have proven to be a valuable tool to many of his clients. With internationally recognized expertise in relating communications technology to real business, Kerton is equipped to assist any telecommunications organization toward their strategic goals.

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