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.
Operator 4G technology Where it�s at Average download speeds
AT&T LTE 28 cities N/A
Verizon LTE 203 towns and cities 5-12Mbit/s averages claimed on LTE downloads
Sprint WiMax/LTE WiMax in 71 markets; LTE in six cities by mid-year 2012 3-6Mbit/s on WiMax
T-Mobile USA LTE Coming in 2013 N/A
MetroPCS LTE 13 cities and much of Florida 2-6Mbit/s
Sources: Light Reading Mobile, Operator data

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:

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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elgato990 12/5/2012 | 5:38:54 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

Pretty sure you cannot be 4G without support IPv6.  Sprint and AT&T are not there, VZW and T-Mobile USA are there.

CITADEL4U 12/5/2012 | 5:38:54 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

Unfortuantely, this story has added to the confusion over 4G definition not cleared it up.

First, the ITU does not define what is or is not 4G.

The Institiute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) the largest scientific organization in the world created, and has defined exactly what 4G is down to the most microscopic detail from the very beginning back in the 1990s.

The real and only internationally accepted definition of 4G is defined in IEEE Standard 802.16.  Where all the other standards for Wi-Fi 802.11, and Blue Tooth 802.3, and etc. are defined.  This is where all the manufacturers and users come together to clearly define what is required for these devices to work.

Other International Standards Groups such as the ITU, UTC, EIA, CCITT, IEC, Cigre, and etc. all defer to the IEEE for defining the operational requirements of all wireless equipment.

The confusion comes from the fact that the wireless carriers don't like the fact that the IEEE years ago defined 4G as WiMax.  The same service now being sold by Clearwire and a few other carriers for several years without much success.

The reason the carriers didn't like IEEE 4G definition is that WiMax is just a giant version of Wi-Fi. Instead of a coverage area circle of a few hundred feed, WiMax can reach a coverage circle of over 30 miles in diameter.   Both, Wi-Fi and WiMax are both completely compatiable, and can share data freely.  The carriers couldn't allow a free Wi-Fi service that large, or the same thing that happened to their wireline business, Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) would also destroy their wireless businesses.

So the carriers set about trying to destroy and disrupt the IEEE Standard 802.16.  But, it was too late. It had already been agreed to, released, and equipment manufactured to that standard. The carriers then tried to block anybody from using WiMax, even leaning on manufacturers. This set back 4G service in the USA for over 10 years. That's one of the big reasons the USA is so far behind the rest of the world in 4G access.

Finally, in order to block open access like Wi-Fi from 4G, the carriers created their own standard 4G rip off of the existing IEEE 802.16 standard called LTE (Long Term Evolution). Which is simply WiMax with a lot of road blocks designed to kill open access Wi-Fi. They have lied and tried to state that LTE is somehow better than WiMax. Which is absolutley: False. There is little if any difference.

In fact, LTE operability with WiMax is being included in the new 802.16 Standards, which the IEEE will be releasing very soon.

Therefore, 4G is defined by the IEEE as WiMax, 802.16 compatible and only operating above frequecies of 2.5 gigahertz.

I hope I have cleared up your mistakes.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:38:54 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

There's lot of technical requirements for 4G in the IMT-Advanced spec for sure, way more than data speeds. But I wanted to talk about what you see advertised as 4G often isn't. If I was a real stickler I guess I could say that nothing is 4G right now, but LTE and WiMax are at least in the ballpark and it gets to be rather King Canute-like to ignore the constant marketing stream.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:38:54 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

No. Not really, CITADEL4U.

The ITU says what 4G is.

The IEEE put forward 802.16m (commonly refered to as WiMax 2) as a 4G standard that conforms to the ITU's IMT-Advanced requirement for 4G in September 2009. The 3GPP submitted LTE-Advanced.

The IEEE has definitely had a major role in defining a 4G specification. But in the end the ITU says what 4G is.

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:38:53 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

Wow, how could we be 10-years behind when 3G was not commercially available until the end of 2004.  So 4G was to come before 3G?


The US is behind in 4G access?  You sure about that, Ofcom just recently announced that in the UK, the 2G bands can be used for 4G and an upcoming auction for the other players to get their 4G spectrum.  How can we be behind when other countries have yet to deploy an LTE network?  From an article from May 13, 2012:

“It looks like the U.K. won’t be the last major European country to have LTE. U.K. regulator Ofcom has given Everything Everywhere permission to use its existing 2G spectrum to launch an LTE network this year, long before the regulator holds the 4G auction where the remaining U.K. operators will collect their LTE airwaves.”


So Verizon Wireless and AT&T started their deployment last year and many EU countries plan on starting later this year; or one year after but we are behind?

CITADEL4U 12/5/2012 | 5:38:53 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

I do not agree.

The ITU mearly defines what the carriers consider 4G.  Not what it really is, it's all part of their LTE plan.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:38:52 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G' Here's the thing:

I covered the introduction of 802.16 back in the day. The Intel folks on the call never once mentioned 4G. The release annoucing the ratification of 802.16m in 2010 they didn't 4G.

People might have dreamed of 802.16 as a giant WiFi play but since it was deployed over licensed spectrum that was never gonna happen.
gtchavan 12/5/2012 | 5:38:52 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'

Thanks for posting the real numbers about this company.  On their web site they also appear to fradulently claim that they have the nations largest 4G network.  I bet even if you count HSPA+ as 4G, they still don't have the largest 4G network.  I think these guys don't even care what anyone thinks.  According to their web site they are planning to introduce LTE in 7 additional cities.  So I take this must be by the end of the year.  What a laugher!   Why apple even makes an ATT ipad? Can't wait until the next LTE iphone to come out, I am sure by then ATT will have 35 cities covered--wow what an accomplishment! 

p.s.  I ran though the san jose freeways Verizon has excelent coverage and down load speeds quite a few places over 20eg and as high as 27meg.  This is much better than I expected.

rhr 12/5/2012 | 5:38:51 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G' That fact that the definition of 4G is not clear-cut says something about how complex wireless has become but also about the shortcomings of an industry that is leaving end users confused.-á

The ITU's 100M mobile/ 1G static always seemed a good, simple starting point even if users rarely see anywhere near the potential rates of any wireless standard.-á

Does it matter? Well, yes it does. It confuses users, it is not necessary, and smacks of unprofessionalism, something the wireless industry is not.

The 3GPP should define exactly what needs to be met to be classified as 4G in a way simple enough that a mobile phone user can decide if their operator offers 4G.-á

If the late US physicist, Richard Feynman, could summarise the whole of physics in one sentence, surely the telecom industry can define what it means by 4G?
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 5:38:51 PM
re: What We Mean When We Say '4G'


In fact I personally defined 4G cuz I said so...here is the definition:




PS - 4G means 4th Generation and there can be 4G in pretty much any industry that wants to make it.  If you don't get it, I could declare AMPS as 4G PHONE SERVICE.  All the technical definitions have NO meaning in the real world.

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