What We Mean When We Say '4G'

5:00 PM Confused about what 4G really means? Check out our handy table of true 4G operators in the US

Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

March 20, 2012

3 Min Read
What We Mean When We Say '4G'

5:00 PM -- It's hard to avoid 4G these days. Watch TV, troll the Internet or travel around any major city in the U.S., and you'll see ads pushing faster wireless data services and devices using this amazing new wireless technology.

But, as we saw with the iPad launch, many users don't really know what Long Term Evolution (LTE) and fourth-generation (4G) wireless technology actually mean. And who can blame them? Operators have played fast and loose with the term to try and get an edge over competitors. In part, that's thanks to the body that lays down the law on what 4G wireless actually is, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) .

The technical bit
4G wireless was originally supposed to refer to technologies that use Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) as the basis for the wireless speed boost. Capabilities required included maximum downlink speeds of 100Mbit/s when a user is on the move and up to 1Gbit/s for stationary downloads.

The ITU had designated LTE-Advanced and WiMax 2 as the only real 4G technologies, due to start arriving in operator's networks in 2013 at the earliest. In a press release in December 2010, however, the body said, "it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third-generation systems now deployed."

So operators could say that technologies that had been called 3G are now labeled "4G," which is confusing for users, as we saw with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s re-labeling of the iPhone 4S as a "4G" phone.

Real 4G
So, here are the networks LR Mobile thinks can legitimately be counted as major 4G deployments in the U.S. in that they use the right OFDM technology to speed downloads and reduce the time it takes to set up data calls, allowing users to stream videos faster and upload photos more quickly to their social networks.

Table 1: Who offers what in the U.S.


4G technology

Where it�s at

Average download speeds



28 cities




203 towns and cities

5-12Mbit/s averages claimed on LTE downloads



WiMax in 71 markets; LTE in six cities by mid-year 2012

3-6Mbit/s on WiMax

T-Mobile USA


Coming in 2013




13 cities and much of Florida


We haven't included high-speed packet access-plus (HSPA+) networks from AT&T and T-Mobile US Inc. because, while fast, they are clearly derived from the 3G standards that the operators were already working with, even if they market them as 4G.

For more
Get a snapshot of what's 4G and what's FauxG below:

  • 4G? Don't Worry About It

  • ITU Backtracks on '4G' Definition

  • Hold On for LTE-Advanced

  • T-Mobile Turns FauxG Into 4G

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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