4G

How AT&T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

One of the biggest surprises of CES 2011 was AT&T and T-Mobile magically pulling 4G networks out their hats. The real story isn't quite as magical.

The biggest surprise at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was how AT&T and T-Mobile showed off their 4G networks. If that sounds confusing to you because you didn't know that either them were in the 4G game, then you had the same reaction I did. Unlike Sprint/Clearwire (with WiMAX) and Verizon (with LTE), neither AT&T nor T-Mobile has been building out 4G networks in the US. So how did they make 4G networks appear out of thin air? Well, the short answer is that they didn't.

What AT&T and T-Mobile did was to re-brand their enhanced 3G networks (sometimes called 3.5G) by simply renaming them "4G" networks. Voila! In other words, this is mostly a marketing ploy.

However, to be fair, both T-Mobile and AT&T have been making legitimate upgrades to their 3G networks that actually approach 4G speeds -- at least the same kinds of 4G speeds that Sprint/Clearwire sees on its WiMAX network. Verizon's LTE has even higher speeds.

The problem is that the enhanced 3G networks of both T-Mobile and AT&T are based on GSM technology, so they are still voice networks that are essentially retrofitted to handle data. On the other hand, WiMAX and LTE are both IP-based networks that use OFDM technology and are designed to natively handle data traffic. That's what makes them "4G" or next generation networks, even more than the raw bandwidth numbers. This shows up when you look at the latency of these networks, which is typically 50-100ms (milliseconds) vs. 200-500ms for the enhanced 3G networks.

Nevertheless, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently relaxed its standards to allow for LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ to all fall under the label of 4G. For the reasons mentioned above, I agree with LTE and WiMAX getting the 4G label, but not HSPA+.

Based on what we learned at CES, here are the plans that T-Mobile and AT&T outlined for their next generation networks.

T-Mobile's 4G approach

T-Mobile talked a really big game at CES, saying it "delivered the fastest wireless data performance in the top 100 U.S. markets during the second half of 2010" based on a Nielsen study (done before Verizon rolled out its LTE network). However, PC Magazine's 2010 report on the fastest mobile networks showed T-Mobile consistently trailing AT&T and Sprint's WiMAX network in average speeds (and that study was done before Verizon zoomed ahead of them all with LTE in December 2010). In other words, T-Mobile is actually fourth among the big four in the US when it comes to maximum network speeds.

T-Mobile's "4G" is based on a 3G standard called HSPA+ that T-Mobile has been deploying in roughly the 100 largest metro areas in the US. At CES, the company said it plans to double its network speeds in 25 US metro areas covering 140 million Americans by mid-2011. T-Mobile claims that its peak downloads speeds in those areas will be 42 Mbps, but those are theoretical speeds. Verizon's LTE is capable of theoretical peak speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but in the real world the upper limits are 10-20 Mbps. I'll be impressed if T-Mobile's HSPA+ can get up to 5-8 Mbps in the real world.

To make matters worse, T-Mobile is about to start running an ad campaign saying that it has "America's Largest 4G Network." That is a misleading claim that I hope won't fool too many people.

AT&T's 4G approach

While T-Mobile had actually been fudging its 4G story for a several months leading up to CES (and before the ITU's 4G standards change), AT&T unveiled its re-branded "4G" network at the show. And, honestly, AT&T actually had a better story to tell than T-Mobile. The company has already rolled out HSPA+ to nearly 100% of its US network and it has some real speed numbers to show for it. The AT&T 3G network is capable of 4-5 Mbps downloads and 1.5 Mbps uploads, which rival WiMAX speeds, although it still has much higher latency than both WiMAX and LTE.

So, like T-Mobile, AT&T is now labeling its 3G HSPA+ network as "4G," but its network does actually have more 4G-like qualities to brag about. On the other hand, unlike T-Mobile, AT&T has plans to upgrade its network to LTE. At CES, AT&T said it plans to begin its LTE rollout in mid-2011 and have nearly its entire network upgraded to LTE by the end of 2013 (the same time period Verizon plans to have its LTE rollout finished). But, it's important to remember that Verizon owns more 700MHz spectrum than AT&T for LTE, which will allow it to build a more widespread and more robust network. AT&T could catch up by buying additional spectrum, as it did last year when it bought Qualcomm's chunk of 700Mhz.

AT&T looks more likely than T-Mobile to challenge Verizon's 4G dominance, but it still has to prove that it can effectively build wireless networks to handle modern data loads. Its reputation has been severely tarnished by its perpetual inability to deal with the load put on its network by millions of iPhone users. Despite its HSPA+ upgrade in 2010, all of the iPhones at CES last week brought the Las Vegas AT&T network to its knees once again. That doesn't inspire much confidence that AT&T is ready to become a 4G powerhouse.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas that are changing the ways we live and work in the 21st century. He's the co-author of the upcoming book, ...

28 comments
JosephBecket
JosephBecket

This was a great move by AT&T, expanding and becoming much more reliable. Their biggest problem is the lack of a sustainable service system, and this will surely help. AT&T is a great company, but like many nationwide businesses it can have some weak spots. I was surfing the internet and I found this site where people can vent about poor customer service or products they received... it can get really funny. I would recommend you to check it out here: http://ventme.com/companies/view/95

kallom
kallom

While I generally agree with the point here there's something that need to be corrected. Jason wrote: 'The problem is that the enhanced 3G networks of both T-Mobile and AT&T are based on GSM technology, so they are still voice networks that are essentially retrofitted to handle data.' This statement is a typical journalistic oversimplification. GSM technology was based on TDMA (time division multiple access) - essentially a time multiplexing scheme. Though GSM was mainly about digital voice even this technology could offer data transmission: CS (circuit switched data). Of course speeds were ridiculous by today's standards (9.6 kbps standard and 14.4 with HSCSD). GPRS was the next step and it was already an IP based technology. EDGE could deliver higher speeds and then came UMTS AKA 3G. The architecture of these networks has nothing to do with time multiplexing anymore resulting features GSM networks could never offer like video calls, voice and data transmission at the same time etc.. 3G was already designed with mobile data in mind. Yes, I agree while HSPA+ can deliver really great speeds it is really far fetched to call it 4G network, clearly LTE is the one that deserves thet title so yes, it's just plain marketing to call your HSPA+ (essentially 3G data enhanced) network '4G' no matter how great speeds it offers. But the 'retrofitted voice network' part is far from the truth.

bignreel1
bignreel1

My opinion is that if a big company has to lie to get customers, then it is not worth a "plug nickle" as an old timer put it...These companies that lie to get business should be held accountable for their dishonesty by, at the very minimum, having to buy back all the merchandise sold to the customers...

Schoolbus1
Schoolbus1

That Article you linked from PC Mag is over 7 months old. I don't believe that T-Mobile had any "4G" Devices (G2 or MyTouch 4G) or even started advertising they were "4G" until a few months ago. Can you find any more recent studies that compare the real speeds?

izzy_again
izzy_again

I have been a t-mobile customer for quite a few years now and I was surprised to see they had a 4g network. Their data program has always stunk. Although its improving slowly. Don't get me wrong I like t-mobile it works for me.

djxmatthews
djxmatthews

I used the Clear 4G network in both Virginia and Maryland (suburban DC areas). In 4 different locations, each with the tower nearby and in plain sight, typical latencies were 250 to 700 mSec. Sustained throughput over 1 Mbps unreliable. Dropped packets. Sustained outages (at multiple towers) lasting hours each time. Clueless tech support. But don't take it from me... Google it, read the various blogs, and see similar reports from many different Clear markets. Clear is roughly the equivalent of a bad DSL line.... if and when it works.

RechTepublic
RechTepublic

Simply put "G" stands for "generation". It is not a industry-wide standard achived by some technical process. It is just a marketing label. When AT&T advanced past EDGE they called their new technology "3G" because it was their 3rd generation of data service. This is easier consumers to understand. Along the same road, other companies saw how they could easily call their service "4G" and look more appealing to consumers than AT&T. After all, AT&T made up "3G" why can Sprint make up "4G"? The problem is all of the suckers who think that "G" is an actual standard and are choosing to buy a phone just because the vendor was crafty enough to pick a bigger "G" number than the competition.

tlmohr
tlmohr

Why can't we all just get along? Is it possible that there needs to be sources added to all comments from now on unless specifically stated that this is a general statement with some facts present? Not embarrasing at all just unfortunate for us.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

With the number of handsets and addresses it may need over the years.

joeybutts
joeybutts

Jason: You seem to pull a lot of "facts," out of thin air too. On one hand you use the ITU as a benchmark for what is considered 4G but even after quoting them as "relaxing," their standards you still make reference to the fact that HSPA + is somehow still not 4G per your standards of course. Next, you claim that HSPA + latency range is between 200 and 500 ms. That can't be farther from the truth. Real world HSPA + latency (especially when you factor in multi carrier) is actually under 80 ms. You then make claim that AT&T's HSPA + network is "more 4G," than T-Mobile's. Gimme some of what you're smoking basing your own speed tests? Did you know that ATT has only deployed fiber ethernet (enhanced backhaul) to 3 major markets while T-Mobile has fiber deployed almost across its entire 4G footprint? Again I"m not sure where you get your facts but it sounds like you get them from some 17 year old Verizon employee who works in a kiosk at your local mall. You then state that ATT has HSPA + coverage across its entire network. Wrong again. They only claim to have installed HSPA + software across their entire 3G network (not their entire network). Way to go Jason again on the facts! Dude I'm embarrassed for you.

devzero
devzero

Because to technically minded people "4g" Is a standard that was defined by the ITU-R. To these technically minded people, WiMax and LTE based technologies do NOT meet the requirements for 4g set by the ITU-R. So if WiMax and LTE dont meet the standards then how the hell does a 3.5g network end up branded as 4g?

l_creech
l_creech

I can't speak for LTE on Vz as I don't use them, but so far Sprint is IPv4 only on its WiMAX network. My Comcast Business Class supports IPv6 now, but not on residential yet that I have seen. Frontier (formerly Vz) FIOS is also supporting IPv6 across their footprint in this area, including residential services; though they aren't advertising it yet. Hopefully it won't be long before we see IPv6 on mobile networks, but I'm not going to hold my breath while waiting for it.

Mklrbr
Mklrbr

Sure he may have had *some* facts wrong, but AT&T and T-Mobile are from from 4g compared to Sprint and VZW. And they did pull it out of thin air, and its all a huge marketing ploy. For how smart you are, you aren't very intelligent. Dude I'm embarrassed for you.

Jasonjb1222
Jasonjb1222

I don't mean a book that says: "This is what it should be". Or "in college they told me". It's easy to critisize another, but can you equally back up your claims that Jason is wrong? Where di you get your benchmarks? Now, AT&T claims on their own site- be it for HSPA; that they have 100 - 200 ms latency. Now, anyone who has ever worked a network, or driven in traffic for that matter knows that there is congestion and this could have a huge impact. Ever had a website timeout on you before? Let me give you an example. AT&T order your Iphone page. What a disaster, but they have a huge backcone and server capability... What happened? Too much network congestion... Ever tried to order concert tickets or any other event, at noon, online the minute they become available? Same thing happens. So why would a few million smartphone, all trying to connect to the same tower at the same time, not experience the same dilemmas? So, testing at 3 o'clock in the morning in rural areas is not a "valid" benchmark, IMHO. Besides "4G" is being loosely used. Most being accepted as 4G, because of the band it uses, whihc is not the same as 3G (from what I understand).

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

or contractor, please say so. There's nothing wrong with you posting here and defending T-Mo, but we do ask that you disclose if you're related to a company involved. That's just good etiquette. As for your claims about HSPA+ latency, fiber deployment, and AT&T's HSPA+ coverage... I will look into it.

MajorlyCool
MajorlyCool

Instead of calling Verizon and Sprint on their use of the term "4G" they obviously sold out and/or caved to pressure to bless off on this marketing BS. Verizon could have used their marketing money to simply push LTE as a truly much more powerful network than anyone else's but instead took the easy road with the 4G name. Sure it wouldn't be cheap or easy but could have allowed them to differentiate themselves from the pack of other "4G" carriers. My respect for the ITU has plummented. Why not have AT&T and T-Mobile call their networks 5G? What's to stop them?

ChrisHyche@AlabamaOne.Org
ChrisHyche@AlabamaOne.Org

In this area of the country you can't hardly get 3G on AT&T if you step out of city limits. My AT&T phone runs on Edge most of the time. My Verizon work phone is 3G in the same areas.

j.walker
j.walker

What a great title, but I think you left out Verizon Wireless and Sprint/Clearwire. I understand things have been relaxed, but I still have a hard time saying WiMax and LTE are 4G. In my opinion, WiMax and LTE are 3.9G. If this is true, and HSPA+ is considered 3.5G, we are all now just talking about rounding errors, which is marketing spin. I say they are all marketing 4G, technically they are not.

danekan
danekan

According to releases Verizon put out, anybody making devices for their LTE network must support IPv6 and IPv4 is optional. Any device must also support both versions simoltaneously. In practice I don't really know what they're doing, but on my LTE device I actually am only getting an IPv4 IP address not v6... (Screenshot) ... They updated their software to include IP info from both but the IPv6 info is empty.

kyle.baker
kyle.baker

It's all a marketing ploy. LTE was being called 4G before the standard was relaxed. LTE may be the fastest but if memory serves me right still not fast enough to meet the original 4G standard. What people don't get is that all major carriers are there to pull to the wool over your eyes and suck every last dime from you. When people begin to realize that all carriers suck and that some just suck a little less in one way or another they can choose wisely. Rather than believing the hype that such and such carrier is amazing at everything, or I love everything about AT&T but their network is unreliable so i'll go with Verizon. It's all wool my friends. I simply like AT&T because I view sim chips as an advantage.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

given your last effort. It reads like a train wreck.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

"So why would a few million smartphone, all trying to connect to the same tower at the same time, not experience the same dilemmas?" I'm glad you're not my network engineer. If the best you can give me is a million to 1 ratio, you don't deserve the pay. I do see your point, but it is WAY exaggerated...

dustyred14
dustyred14

ITU lost my respect too. Read all that crap AT&T went on about when they heard of the decision. It basically just says "Yeah we were real happy when we found out we could use '4G' to market 3G, cause we wrote them a pretty fat check for it. What mobile companies do to mobile technology I will never understand. And AT&T just did this to compete with Verizon, which is ridiculous because the companies are in oligopoly and literally change eachothers prices to match the price hike of the other. "Ooh! Verizon added $5 to the data plan, we are too!" Isn't not having any competition fun! They should have never let Verizon eat Alltel, and if Cingular had stayed in the game, we wouldn't even have to deal with AT&T's despicable marketing.

dustyred14
dustyred14

It's not about network testing at all. It's about all the work engineers put into these systems, the profit margins we've created for AT&T, the hours on end we make sure everything works for the user and makes them happy and then carriers just destroy it with their corporate problems. It is disgusting what AT&T and T-Mobile did here. Marketing: "Okay, this technology standard now is 4G because Verizon's been working on the real specified possible evolving technology to 4G, but we just upgraded our 3G, so we have 4G too." Tech: "No, you're wrong. You have 3G still, it's just the HSVP+ upgrade." Marketing: "But it has an 'enhanced backhaul'." Tech: "Whaaa... you just heard me say that. That means absolutely nothing outside the datacenter. It is a standardized 3G techology." Marketing: "Enhanced back-haul. Perfect. You always have the best nerd words to make it look extra special!" Tech: "You mean to try and make it look like you're not lying to customers?" Marketing: "Shhh... Now call that ITU guy. Tell him whatever we have now is now the new 4G, and if he doesn't like it he'll never work again. Then send him this check." So, now T-Mobile makes a consumer believe they have 4G although T-Mobile has built not one pre-4G LTE tower in the two years its been claiming the technology - which does not yet exist. Worse, AT&T seems to want to fight you to the death because the ITU basically said something like "the carrier wants to use 4G to try to convince consumers it's not 3G, I guess people will have to think of 3G HSVP+ as well when 4G is said, even though 4G is yet to exist and HSVP+ is recognized 3G standard that does not include any of the 4G abilities, cannot reach LTE speeds and is likely not to go much faster than 3G when you're not right next to a tower." I'm simply calling this out. T-Mobile should not feel it has the right to touch the word if it hasn't even planned to upgrade into LTE - that's saying "we won't pay for 4G, you're not getting the features that define 4G, but our networks a little faster than it used to be when you're next to a tower so we'll "market" it as 4G." Absolutely not. That is lying to customers. Customers could easily look up the upcoming 4G standard and think T-Mobile has this type of network and enter contract with T-Mobile, just to spend the next two years wondering why 4G isn't really an improvement, while she is not granted the same features that LTE provides others. T-Mobile advertises those standards; therefore, she is obligated to them - but they don't have them. A company is responsible for its own marketing failures, and of all companies in the world, these two should have known that technical standards are not interchangeable and can get the company in trouble for reporting them incorrectly. T-Mobile has a lot of nerve right now, I'm just saying. As for your 30 days BS, that's extremely unfair as you are leading someone to believe they're getting something they aren't. Federal Law requires truth in advertising and if a non-technical person purchases something that does not have features you say it did, it is 100% your fault. If you honestly expect the average customer to know how to test speed, and what speed they would even be looking for, to ensure you sold them what you told them it was, then you have failed both your company, your client and the law. If I purchase a new car, drive it a few thousand miles and it starts shaking, yes, I'd know something was wrong. If I came from a phone company and was supposed to get 12mbps, but only gets 4mbps and you truly believe that you're not to blame and it's okay to think the customer's job is to verify that you didn't lie to them, then you are a poor excuse for a marketer. Of all the words you could have weaved together to tell the customer it's faster, you use a standard that is outside its classification? That's failed marketing.

RipVan
RipVan

So no one may ever see my replies, BUT... The service is basically a PHONE. And for voice coverage, the PIRATES at Verizon have the best coverage. Yes, it varies by region, and I have seen stories of some people making claims about this provider or that provider, but I went to TMobile for a smart phone that would NOT make me an iSheep. Big mistake and I will rectify it in August, now that the droid is more readily available. And yes, that guy's post above STINKS of "I work at TMobile."

wellcraft19
wellcraft19

Yup, it's all marketing. Agree fully. Only network testing down the road will "prove" what they really deliver (about the same as testing quality on a car, you do not know anything about it until after a few thousand or more miles). Referring to CES and blaming AT&T "poor network, is more a testament to the success of the iPhone and its users. It is, with available spectrum, almost impossible to build a perfectly functional network when you have over 120K users crammed into a small area. Back to 4G though. It is all about marketing and consumers needs to be educated before they buy, like with anything else, and also realize that in most cases they have 30 days to change their mind. Be thankful the carriers do provide such an option.

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