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4G or Not 4G? That is the Branding.

When one third of UK consumers ‘don’t see the point of 4G’, we should probably blame the marketing.

Occasionally we marketeers can get a wee bit carried away, particularly when it comes to technical specs.

For example, in the consumer digital camera space, there was an arms race for highest number of mega pixels, even though they have a relatively small (and sometimes negative) effect on picture quality.

A similar thing happened with WAP 1.0. (If you don't know about this, search on YouTube for WAP and Surf… 'nuff said.)

The latest arms race in the mobile world is over network speed.

It all started when a U.S. carrier branded its 3.5G services as 4G. That company even twisted handset manufacturers’ collective arms to display 4G on the handset screen. When I'm in the U.S., my iPhone 4S shows 4G despite not supporting LTE, which most people equate with 4G.

Blame that initial truth-stretching carrier in the U.S. or the fierce competition, but the messaging around 4G has been just as confusing—if not more so—here in the UK.

EE launched its 4GEE services last year, in August 2012, by using existing 2G frequencies for their service. Vodafone and O2 launched just a few weeks ago, in August 2013, on their newly acquired 800 MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies.

And thanks to the digital TV switch over, we now also have 800MHz available.

What’s so important about frequencies? Well for those readers who still have an analogue radio, then you’ll know frequencies make a big difference to how far a signal can carry, and its quality. It’s the same with mobile frequencies.

The (UK) 800 MHz band has a lower data capacity, but the signal travels much further than 1800 MHz and 2.6GHz. It also provides better indoor coverage.

Frequency also makes a big difference to all those ‘older’ 4G capable phones. If you have an iPhone 5, GALAXY SIII or GALAXY Note II, then not all networks are equal. On Vodafone and O2 you’ll need to trade it in.

But let’s get back to the hype. It gained momentum over the summer when Vodafone rolled out its ‘Ultrafast 4G’ ad campaign at the British Grand Prix without having yet launched its 4G service. To make things even more confusing, the promotion also has a ‘double message’, leading with the ultrafast headline, and following with a focus on the content of the service rather than speed. (Vodafone is offering consumers a free period of either Spotify Premium or Sky Sports Mobile TV.) Is it fast or does it allow for more content? Or both? Are those things related? What is 4G?

Another mobile carrier adding to the confusion is Three. It’s been promoting ‘Our Ultrafast 3.9G Network’ as almost as fast as 4G. But on the plus side, when their 4G service launches at Christmastime it’ll be at no additional cost.

All things considered, it’s not surprising that one third of UK consumers 'can't see the point' of 4G.

Do the details of 3.9G, 4GEE and 4G matter? I think they do. But consumers, after having been subjected to a number of misleading messages, feel differently. Only 21% of the 1,456 British adults surveyed by YouGov SixthSense (see link above) understand the benefits of 4G on 800MHz, or that 48% saying they only have a 'vague understanding' of what 4G is.

So, what is 4G? According to industry regulators, it’s speed of up to 35mpbs, averaging 8-20mbps. In contrast, 3G could only reach a top speed of 7.2mbps. This means, for example, album downloads through a 4G connection are five times faster than through a 3G connection.

That’s great. However, these impressive speeds aren’t widely available—yet.

Perhaps the focus of 4G marketing should be educating consumers about what the big deal is and when it will actually become available. Hey, that’s what I’m trying to do. And so is this guy. At the moment, consumers don’t understand 4G. Confusing them is not the best way forward.


Updated: 800 MHz was missed from my text for the bands awarded in August, and clarifying it is the 800 Mhz band in the UK that has lower bandwidth