The 4G war of words is on

Improved data networks and devices were in the limelight at CES, but in the race to be the first and fastest, mobile operators may end up confusing users

Mobile operators were out in full force at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, promoting their improved data networks and unveiling new devices. But with their marketing efforts in overdrive, the operators may confuse rather than attract users.

AT&T, for example, started calling its current upgraded HSPA+ network 4G instead of 3G. It's not the fastest major network in the country -- that's Verizon's LTE, based on advertised speeds -- but AT&T says it has a better transition path to its next-generation network.

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"Today, we're seeing 4G on HSPA+ in markets with enhanced backhaul, with speeds up to 6Mbps," said Ralph de la Vega, AT&T Mobility's president and CEO, during his company's developers' summit held at CES.

"We have the best transition path to 4G and we're the only U.S. company with this plan," de la Vega said.

He is arguing that AT&T's plan is better than Verizon's because once AT&T starts launching LTE, users will be able to fall back onto the HSPA+ network, which can deliver as fast as 6 Mbps download speeds. At CES, AT&T said it will advance its timeline for rolling out LTE, with launches starting in the middle of this year.

Verizon, however, is going straight from its existing 3G network to LTE, without an interim step like HSPA+. That means users who aren't in the LTE coverage areas will drop down to Verizon's slower 3G EV-DO Rev. A (Evolution-Data Optimized) network, which offers download speeds of around 600 kbps to 1.4 Mbps.

Still, even if Verizon doesn't have AT&T's "4G" HSPA+, it has a head start on the pack with the faster LTE. Verizon launched LTE in 38 markets in December and last week said it is speeding up its upgrade path so that another 140 markets will come online this year. Currently, Verizon's LTE network covers 100 million people, and in 18 months it will reach 200 million people, Tony Melone, chief technology officer for Verizon, said at CES. He said the network should offer 5 Mbps to 12 Mbps download speeds.

Further confusing matters, T-Mobile last week also announced new plans for its own "4G" HSPA+ network, saying that it will double the speed so that it's capable of delivering an astounding 42 Mbps. That, however, would be the download rate if just one person were connected at a time to a cell tower. Operators typically try to offer users a more realistic approximation of the speed they'll get in a real-life situation when sharing the network with other people.

To make the situation even more complicated, the International Telecommunication Union has flip-flopped on what technologies should officially get the 4G moniker. In November, the ITU's Radiocommunication Sector said the only technologies that qualify as 4G will be a future version of LTE, called LTE-Advanced, and the next generation of WiMax, known as WirelessMAN-Advanced.

However, in early December it seemed to relent from that stance. Buried in a press release, it said that LTE and WiMax may be called 4G since they offer improved performance over 3G.

Consumers may also be confused because the data rates they get ultimately will depend on whether they have a device that works on the fastest networks. Currently, the only way to access Verizon's LTE network is using a USB dongle with a laptop.

Countless new devices were announced last week, few of which are yet available, to run on all the faster networks. AT&T said it plans to launch 20 new 4G devices this year, with the first appearing in March. One of the new phones is the Motorola Atrix, which runs on HSPA+. The Atrix can be paired with a docking station that looks like a laptop but has no CPU.

Verizon showed off 10 new devices that will run on its LTE network, including one of the first tablets to run the Honeycomb version of Google's Android operating system. That tablet, the Xoom, will come from Motorola. The first version will run on Verizon's 3G network, but buyers will be eligible for a hardware upgrade later that will make it compatible with the LTE network. Verizon isn't yet explaining the logistics of such a hardware upgrade.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's email address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com.

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