Doubleplus ungood! Big Brother's designs on mobile

The carriers announced their visions at CTIA and Mobile World Congress -- here's how to interpret their real goals

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Of course, in typical Big Brother fashion, De la Vega told the U.S. government to stay out of wireless -- meaning don't regulate prices or impose Net neutrality -- while also asking the government for more spectrum. You know the contradiction: The government is good when it gives you free or cheap services but bad when it tries to impose regulation to prevent abusive behavior: doublethink ungood.

Fake 4G pitches are gaining ground
Keep in mind that despite all the hype, mobile is a very slow market. The buildout of new technologies does take years and billions of dollars (which is why 3G coverage is still not where it needs to be, a decade after its rollout began), and even up-and-comers such as the iPhone take years to get a strong presence in the market.

Sprint Nextel is now actively promoting so-called 4G smartphones and service using a technology (WiMax) that was promised a decade ago and is now available in a couple dozen or so cities. (It's not 4G, despite what Sprint says. The actual 4G technology -- LTE -- is still being developed and won't begin serious rollouts until 2013, though you'll see limited test deployments as early as this fall.) Given the feverish 4G pitches not only by the carriers, but also by consumer electronics publications such as PC World and Cnet that are already running "smackdowns" for 4G phones that haven't shipped, it's quite easily to believe the exaggerated, premature, and sometimes outright false claims.

Here's the truth: Sprint's 4G network (provided by Sprint's affiliate Clearwire) is very limited, so the HTC Evo, the Android-based WiMax smartphone it will sell, won't be able to take advantage of the WiMax networks in most places. Instead, you'll get regular 3G speeds. And early customers have complained about the slow "4G" service offered by Clearwire. Maybe that's why Sprint and Clearwire's CEOs now say they may adopt the true 4G technology, LTE.

The good news is that indications are so far that Sprint will not charge a separate data-access fee for its 4G smartphones; it recently dropped such fees for 3G devices. However, note that there's a 5GB monthly limit for data transfer on the 3G network (you pay 5 cents per megabyte after that) and a 300MB data limit when roaming. The bad news: The $99-per-month unlimited voice and data plan costs as much as the competitors' unlimited voice plan with data plan added (also $99 per month when added together) -- so despite Sprint's marketing that says it's "dropped" the additional fee for data, it really hasn't. Doubleplus ungood.

As Sprint makes more noise about its not-really-4G network, expect the other carriers to talk about their 4G LTE plans -- even though you won't actually be able to get the service for years. It's about marketing, not accuracy.

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