T-Mobile USA began running a TV commercial advertising its 4G cellular-wireless network this week, which set off something of a firestorm on the Web with many people asking, Does T-Mobile really have a 4G Network?
While the answer can be either Yes or No depending on who you ask, by the criteria most people use it’s undoubtedly Yes.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, the answer is No. In fact, according to the ITU, no U.S. carrier has a 4G network — or even anything close.
Its official definition of a 4G network requires a mobile device to be able to exchange data at 100 Mbit/sec, much faster than anything currently available. That’s about five times faster than the LTE networks that Verizon and AT&T will deploy in the coming months.
The ITU is not a quick-moving organization. It only recently defined 4G, while the definition of 3G was codified when EDGE was an up-and-coming new technology. To give you some idea of what that means, a 3G device can offer data speeds as slow as 3.84 Mbit/sec.
The wireless carriers as a group have clearly decided that the ITU is overly conservative in its definitions. And there’s justification for this — not many people would agree with the ITU that a network that is 10 or 20 times faster than its predecessor is still part of the same generation of technology.
That’s why some telecoms have begun saying they offer 4G networks. This is a marketing term, but it does the job of letting consumers know that they can expect much faster data speeds than were available in the past.
The first company to do this was Sprint, who says its WiMAX network is 4G. Very few people have argued this point, even though WiMAX is not 4G by the ITU definition — it offers peak download speeds of up to 12 Mbps, and average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps. Still, WiMAX passes the basic test of being significantly faster than its predecessors.
What about T-Mobile 4G?
Although there was no protest about Sprint saying it has a 4G network, there was quite a bit when T-Mobile said this week that its nascent HSPA+ network is 4G. These protests have little justification.
In real world tests by a variety of third parties, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ service has performed close to Sprint’s WiMAX service in downloads — sometimes doing a bit better, sometimes a bit worse. When it comes to uploading data, the HSPA+ network is generally faster, sometimes twice as fast.
Considering T-Mobile offers a wireless service that’s much quicker than 3G networks, and roughly as fast as a rival network that most people agree is 4G, then this carrier clearly has a 4G network.
No mater what the ITU says.