Nov. 3, 2010 at 1:00 AM ET
T-Mobile just started saying that it's the proud owner of "America's largest 4G network," thumbing its nose at Sprint. After all, Sprint is currently the only other carrier promoting a 4G network. While it's a nice badge of honor for fourth-place T-Mobile, which really has earned praise for quickly building a new competitive wireless data network, the declaration kicks off a period of consumer confusion that could continue for years.
T-Mobile is saying that it has a new high-speed data network which covers greater overall territory than Sprint's 4G WiMax network, and which delivers wireless data speeds on par with Sprint's WiMax network. T-Mobile goes so far as to say that the network "offers theoretical peak throughput speeds of 21 megabits per second," or about what a decent cable modem can deliver in our age of awesome home broadband. In Sweden, the next-generation cellular network clocks in at 40-50 Mbps, says the Yankee Group, a research firm. And those are real-world speeds, not "theoretical" ones. But even in the U.S., in the here and now, the performance gain is tangible: I have used T-Mobile's network, and it does deliver.
WiMax is slowly rolling out across America, finally arriving in New York (but not yet in San Francisco). Sprint has sold it to customers for over a year, but in my own testing, it's been a choppy experience. And it's a hard sell. Though Sprint's pricing is generally very competitive (with text messaging included in data plans), Sprint charges an additional $10 per month for its 4G. So it makes sense that T-Mobile would swoop in with the "larger 4G network" claim, especially when T-Mobile's 4G network is available for the same price as 3G.
T-Mobile even has an Android phone, the myTouch 4G by HTC, shown above, that can easily go toe to toe against the groundbreaking HTC Evo and oh-so-desirable Samsung Epic currently leading Sprint's line.
The problem is, the technology T-Mobile is using, dubbed HSPA+, is currently considered an extension of its 3G network, the same technology also used by AT&T. In fact, AT&T itself has pledged to upgrade its network to HSPA+ by the end of the year, but has not mentioned the term "4G." The reason is because AT&T has said it would roll out a whole new network technology, called LTE, which is traditionally considered the true "4G" competitor to Sprint's WiMax.
Confused? I'm sorry, but I am seriously just the messenger here. But let's recap: While both T-Mobile and AT&T will have HSPA+ networks by year end, AT&T is only using the technology as a stop-over on the way to its promised next-generation network, while T-Mobile is stating that it is the next generation. Meanwhile, Sprint is busy selling its 4G wares based on a different technology. Like AT&T, Verizon is working on LTE, but it has no intermediate step, so its customers probably won't have as much generational nonsense to sort out.
Ultimately, it is nonsense. In a report on the arrival of 4G, the Yankee Group reports that "not only do nearly three-fourths of users not know or understand what 4G is, but after years of marketing efforts, more than half still don’t know what 3G is." The technology behind it is real, and good. But we need to ditch the "G" talk and move to talk about speeds, the way home broadband providers do.
Forget 3G and 4G, and remember this: For most networks, current good 3G wireless bandwidth is between 2 and 4 Mbps. With WiMax, Sprint is promising 3 to 6 Mbps with peaks up to 10Mbps. The Yankee Group reports that Verizon's unofficial 4G LTE results land around 8.5 Mbps, and the company promises a range of 5 to 12 Mbps. If T-Mobile is smart, it will talk in numbers, since its HSPA+ network can already meet — or beat — these real-world results.
Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. Just whatever you do, don't bring up 3.5G.