Shakespeare opined "what's in a name?" in the classic story of Romeo and Juliette. Well, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but just because you slap a "4G" label on a wireless service doesn't make it so. The semantic battle between T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint over what exactly 4G is or isn't illustrates that 4G is little more than a marketing tagline.
While Sprint and AT&T are quick to challenge T-Mobile's 4G assertion, T-Mobile has just as much right to call its network 4G as any of the other wireless providers. The reality is that--from a technical perspective--none of the wireless networks marketed as 4G in the United States actually meets the official criteria for the next generation wireless network.
Essentially, while Sprint and Verizon have been aggressively marketing the incremental improvements to their networks as "4G", AT&T and T-Mobile have comparable--or possibly even superior--networks, but were just more honest in naming them. Apparently, T-Mobile finally got frustrated over the abuse of the term 4G and decided to jump on the 4G marketing hype bandwagon.
A spokesman for AT&T e-mailed me the following comments. "Third-party research is clear--AT&T has the Nation's Fastest Mobile Broadband Network, period. T-Mobile's claims about 4G are based on the same HSPA+ technology we have deployed to 180M people today, more than T-Mobile's reported 140M, and we'll have it rolled out to 250M people by the end of this month, substantially more than the 200M T-Mobile says it will have by year end," adding "Now that our HSPA+ speed upgrade is underway, we're focused on the next upgrade to make our fastest network even faster--and that's LTE, which we're trialing now and will launch in 2011."
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The use of the term 4G today is purely a marketing ploy. Notice in the quote above that AT&T capitalized "Fastest Mobile Broadband Network". That's because it's not just a casual statement, but a trademarked brand slogan.
It is a common marketing tactic to trademark a proprietary brand name for a given product or technology, then claim to be the only one offering it. For example, Texaco can state that it is the only gasoline with Techron--and that is true. However, other gasolines have virtually identical cleaning agents, they just can't use the name Techron because it's a registered trademark of Texaco. It gives an illusion of exclusivity to a concept that is commonly available from all competitors as well.
So, caveat emptor. Don't be swayed to a specific wireless provider or smartphone simply because it is labeled "4G". Do your due diligence to understand what the real capabilities of the device or network are, and just know that--at least for now--4G just means "faster".