4G versus 3G: The Confusion Continues

While you were sleeping, AT&T technicians were hard at work infiltrating your home, quickly procuring your iPhone 4S and swapping out your 3G chip for a faster LTE chip, thus putting you on their faster 4G network.  Is this a dream?  Can a software update suddenly increase the bandwidth capabilities of your AT&T iPhone 4S almost magically?  The short answer?


iphone 4s 4g att 300x225 4G versus 3G:  The Confusion Continues

AT&T iPhone 4S (Credit: Steve Kovach, Business Insider)

Millions of AT&T iPhone 4S users upgraded their iOS software to 5.1 and discovered that the 3G symbol had mysteriously changed into a 4G symbol.  This doesn’t mean, however, that you will see increased speeds.  Unfortunately, this all has to do with marketing.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, 4G service must be IP-based, use OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) technology and allow for download speeds of up to 100Mbps.  Current iterations of Long Term Evolution (LTE), HSPA+ or WiMax are not that fast (though reports have shown that Verizon’s LTE technology has been able to make it to around 73Mbps).

So why are AT&T iPhone 4S phones with iOS 5.1 showing they are on a 4G network?  What changed?  As previously stated, marketing changed.

In 2010, T-Mobile started marketing their HSPA+ implementation as a 4G-like service.  Their reasoning?  Their service was almost as fast as current versions of LTE and WiMax.  They soon dropped the “like” from the materials, simply calling it a 4G service.  Instead of clarifying the previous definition of 4G service, the ITU decided to allow the carriers to characterize LTE, WiMax and HSPA+ as a 4G service.

Even though AT&T’s network had already been upgraded to HSPA+ when the iPhone 4S was introduced, the icon on the phone stated 3G.  Their reasoning is anyone’s guess.  Pressure from Verizon, Apple’s desire not to confuse the customers?  Who really knows.

But apparently with the introduction of iOS 5.1 and the new iPad that is touted as having 4G speeds (via LTE), AT&T and Apple are now ok with telling everyone that the AT&T iPhone 4S is on a 4G network.  To further the confusion, AT&T is actively deploying LTE 4G, which is considered a true 4G service.

But your iPhone 4S won’t be treated as a real 4G device.  The distinction is still being made in the data plans that are offered.  A true LTE device (the new iPad) will get up to 5GB of transfer a month.  iPhone 4S users are still limited to 3GB a month.  As, of course, if you go over your cap, AT&T will slow down your throughput.

This change is yet another method that AT&T is using to confuse their customers.  First, it was unlimited data plans aren’t really unlimited because they will throttle your connection if they think you are in the top 5% of the users for an area.  Now they are basically lying to their customers by showing the iPhone 4S as being on a 4G network.  Ultimately, however, it’s the ITU’s fault for not standing their ground and making it clear that there are distinctive differences between 3G and 4G services.  Unfortunately, they seem to have been swayed by the carriers and have allowed them to make their own decisions as to the definition of 3G versus 4G.

What are your thoughts?  Do you think AT&T and other carriers are being less than truthful when it comes to how they characterize their 4G networks?


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