What is a '4G' network? Mostly, a marketing ploy

The marketing world is full of vague adjectives like "new," "better" or "healthy" that don't necessarily mean much.

The wireless industry has its own buzzword: 4G. Carriers have taken the technical-sounding term for fourth generation and turned it into a vehicle for competing advertising claims that could confuse consumers.

Starting with Clearwire Corp. and Sprint Nextel Corp., wireless carriers have used 4G to describe a major leap in speed, capacity and power over other networks. But operators don't agree on what constitutes that technological milestone. As a result, 4G has become a marketing term almost unrelated to its technical definition, which is determined by industry standards bodies.

Earlier this month, T-Mobile USA Inc. said it had expanded its 4G service to six markets, adding them to a roster of "America's largest 4G network." The carrier's announcement prompted grumbling from some of its competitors, which said T-Mobile was trying to pass off an improved 3G network as a new 4G network. Critics noted that the carrier itself had refrained from using "4G" to describe its technology, called HSPA-plus, when it was introduced.

T-Mobile is unapologetic.

"For customers, it's setting an expectation of a significant change in their experience," said Bentley Alexander, T-Mobile's regional vice president of engineering and operations. "It's a step above and beyond the experience folks are having today.... It's appropriate to call it a 4G network, and we're proud to call it that."

The raised eyebrows over T-Mobile's 4G announcement underscore the ultracompetitive nature of the wireless industry, which is hungry for revenue from mobile data services — Web surfing, video streaming and photo sharing — that will be further enabled by the newest network technology. Every carrier wants to show it has the best pipelines for that data, and 4G is elegant marketing shorthand.

"To us, what it means is it's the next generation of technology," said Mike Sievert, Clearwire's chief commercial officer. "It has to be more than just faster.... It also has to have higher capacity, the tons of megabytes of data that we know people want. And, finally, there has to be a breakthrough in the cost of the technology."

Verizon Wireless plans to launch its 4G network in 38 markets on Sunday, while AT&T says it will make its 4G debut in 2011. Both carriers use a technology called Long Term Evolution, or LTE. Clearwire and Sprint's network technology is known as WiMax.

If a carrier is pitching "4G-like speeds, or 'Yesterday I had a 3G network; today I'm going to brand it as a 4G network,' you've got to look under the hood a little bit and do a true comparison," said T.J. Fox, president for the Illinois and Wisconsin region at Verizon Wireless.

In the wireless industry, various agencies coordinate how the radio spectrum is used globally and set technology standards, which are important for interoperability between communications systems. In October, the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, announced its designations for "true 4G technologies." All of the U.S. networks touted as 4G fall short of ITU criteria.

"None of the networks today meet the ITU's specifications for 4G," said Chris Nicoll, a distinguished research fellow at the Yankee Group. "It's like saying, "My bicycle is a car because it has wheels and has the same (technology) road map to get to the automobile.' "

Still, with so much momentum behind making 4G a household name, the carriers aren't giving up the term. And because there is no agency with legal authority over how 4G should be used in advertising, carriers are free to describe their technology however they please. This dynamic mirrors how "all natural," for example, has become a ubiquitous yet hazily defined term.

"It was clear this was a brand-new network. It had never been built before, and it was clearly an advanced network," said Todd Rowley, vice president of 4G at Sprint. "Because a group of very smart people that are recognized said, 'Hey, this is the bar,' does that mean it's the bar? I say no."