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

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

Summary: 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.

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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.

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Networking, AT&T, Verizon, Wi-Fi

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

    Companies should not be able to outright lie like that. If you dont really have 4g then stop advertising that you do! I see the commercials from T Mobile with the video chat thing. I used to be with T mobile but I would hit stretches of areas where there was no coverage. And I move around my state a lot all day, as a technician I need to have a good signal that I can make a call quickly if needed. So I switched to Verizon. I never have a signal problem. Time will tell how this whole 4g landscape develops. But right now Verizon has the most area to implement the technology
    spikey289
    • RE: How AT&T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      @spikey289

      The thing is, Sprint was advertising 4G BUT they were no faster than 3G HSDPA in real world speed test results especially on upload speeds.

      What's in a name when you are consistently hitting 3-5Mbps down and 2Mbps up?
      alsobannedfromzdnet
      • Today I tried ATT in Houston Texas

        Using a Captivate and an 4G, neither reached 1Mbps. Right beside it where a G2, a MyTouch4G and a Vibrant. All exceeded 4Mbps download and 1Mbps upload with the G2 reaching 8Mbps.

        So you state that ATT has revamped its network nation wide. Within the Beltway in Houston thats a no go. So I think you are just pure ATT hype.

        Regarding speeds. For the Money, no one beats T Mobile in Speed. Even Verizon. As their network does not really work on any phone available to customers.

        Latency, T Mobiles is under 50ms constant 3+mbps Clearwire is next under 80ms, but never delivers over 2mpbs (like Verizon). Next comes Verizon averaging 1.8mbps and Finally ATT < 1Mbps

        I have all speedtest available and can post them. Can you do the same and prove that ATT has the speeds you claim, cause its not my experience today with them.
        Uralbas
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      @spikey289 No one "really has" 4G. Verizon included.
      No one has met the official spec - there's a standard out there for what 4G actually is, and none (zero) meet that.

      It's marketing - in otherwords, the counter argument would be "well, how do we tell consumers that we've invested billions of dollars in upgrading our networks, and we've achieved the speed increases that were the goal of our investment? All consumers know is this weird "G" thing..."
      geolemon
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @geolemon You are correct... Or at least you were. Read carefully: "International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently relaxed its standards to allow for LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ to all fall under the label of 4G."

        The ITU sets up what "4G" means and if they relax the standard, however silly it may seem, it's still the new standard.
        joebob2000
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @geolemon<br><br>In fact, the ITU is still referring to the future tense in reference to a formal standardization of 4G. They've published papers about what the other major players are doing with their definition of the word, but they themselves haven't set anything in stone yet. Hence, the ITU considers 4G ot be a future technology that has no current formal definition at all.<br><br>Since 4G is not officially defined, it does not formally exist. And it would be impossible for any technology to be officially 4G compliant, no matter what its specs or implementation details.
        lfmorrison
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      [i]Companies should not be able to outright lie like that.[/i]

      You seem pretty upset. Maybe this is the wrong time to mention the food supplement and diet industry.
      WarhavenSC
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @WarhavenSC

        Ain't that the truth!
        sackbut
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        Or just food in general.
        jeff.fostermedia@...
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @WarhavenSC
        This is true. I know they are not the only companies that do it. I dislike any company being dishonest. Good call sir.
        spikey289
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      "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. Verizons LTE has even higher speeds."<br><br>There's nothing fair about it... Both of these companies are actively engaged in FALSE advertising and someone (like the Department of Justice) should force them to stop!

      Enhanced 3G or 3.5G is NOT 4G, seeps approaching 4G is NOT 4G. They should not be allowed to continue this deception.
      Masari.Jones
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @Masari.Jones
        Agree with you 100%!!!
        jeffandrew
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @Masari.Jones If there are no standards, then they are allowed to say wherever they want. Sucks, but that's legal principle. If you want a change towards "truth in advertising", then your beef is with federal regulators who set the standards. Guess what? Once AGAIN, they're behind the times.

        Your points are very valid -- and this comes from a longtime T-Mobile subscriber, very happy with their superb customer service -- but don't blame the carrier in a free-market situation without any proper monitoring. T-Mobile (as is every other carrier trying to react to negative publicity) is merely trying to get a competitive edge.

        "They should not be allowed to continue this deception." Amen. But the problem lies with those who are regulating. Unless they understand how the market has changed, THEY are irrelevant.

        Welcome to a business-driven democracy.
        chidino
    • T-Mobile coverage is pathetic.

      @spikey289

      I would go days at times and never see a cell. If you stay within big major metros, it is petty good. Go outside of this areas and TMob is horrid.
      Bruizer
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @spikey, not sure where you live, but I use TMO and I travel extensively across the country. I've had exceptional service over the years, coast to coast. And on the few occasions that I have an issue with coverage in a building, I can use WiFi to make calls with my regular number. NO OTHER CARRIER has gotten that done.
        satrinan
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      @spikey289 I have TMob and there's tons of times where it just doesn't work inside of metro areas, let alone the country. Their network isn't that great when it comes down to it, and they know it.

      I still remember the first time I saw the TMob 4G commercial. Then I tried a G2 at the TMob store. It couldn't hit speeds that I saw on an iPhone or a Droid 2 earlier in the day.
      nix_hed
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      @spikey289 The problem is, the ITU doesn't call it "4G"... they have some way more complicated name ("IMT-Advanced"), which everyone KNOWS is simply "4G". They didn't specify a protocol.. they specified a performance metric. The next generation of LTE meets that original spec entirely, probably the next generation WiMax (the next LTE is just a software upgrade to the cells, but it may require new handsets).


      So you could get away with calling anything 4G. Now sure, if someone started calling their EDGE (2G) network 4G, they wouldn't get away with it. But when they can offer "faster than last year's tech", it's hard for the average consumer to tell the difference.

      The true original definition of 4G was new radio tech, new frequencies, and 100Mb/s download (peak) for mobile, 1Gb/s download (peak) for stationary units. LTE can technically meet most of this, though Verizon will put a network speed cap on it well below 100Mb/s, just as Sprint does on WiMax, and everyone has on the their various 3G protocols.
      Hazydave
  • Uh, isn't this like the car makers calling 2011 models 2012 ...

    in May of 2011 instead of January 2012?
    I love "marketing"!
    ;-)
    kd5auq
    • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

      @kd5auq :) Even the name "marketing" is marketing. If it were properly called "lies told to enhance sales", then at least we'd know that THEY know that we know. You know?
      Trep Ford
      • RE: How AT&amp;T and T-Mobile conjured 4G networks out of thin air

        @Trep Ford NOW thats the most accurate comment I have seen in a long time
        nickdangerthirdi@...