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.