LTE “4G” and the iPad 3

When Apple announced the latest version of its successful iPad tablet PC, it made two hotly debated naming decisions: it called Long Term Evolution (LTE) “4G” and didn’t give the device a model number.

4G is shorthand for “fourth generation cellular wireless standard” and is successor to the 3G and 2G standards.

ITU definition

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) defined the term 4G to apply to wireless standards belonging to IMT-Advanced family, which excludes even LTE.

Some doubt was cast on the ITU’s resolve to stick to this definition when the organisation issued a confusing press statement in December 2010 apparently condoning the use of “4G” for LTE, WiMAX, and “other evolved 3G technologies.”

However, in response to direct questions, ITU spokesperson Sanjay Acharya explicitly told MyBroadband that the union does not regard LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ as 4G.

Jannie van Zyl
Jannie van Zyl

A tale of two definitions

Vodacom’s Jannie van Zyl explained that there are clearly two conflicting views around 4G.

On the one hand there’s the ITU’s formal definition that requires 4G technologies to offer 100Mbps at up to bullet train speeds and 1Gbps while walking.

“On the other hand we have marketers who cannot resist the opportunity to call current 3G technologies ‘4G’ to get a marketing up on their competitors,” van Zyl said. “We saw this recently when speeds of 21Mb/s were sold as ‘4G’.”

This conflict is evident even in Apple’s own products and marketing. On its website, Apple refers to HSPA, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA networks as “3G.” Yet in the latest update to its mobile operating system, iOS 5.1, Apple made it so devices connected to AT&T’s HSPA+ network show a “4G” icon.

Should we give in and just call LTE 4G?

“The topic of how we define 4G is more of a source of amusement than it is a real issue for consumers,” explains analyst and MD of World Wide Worx, Arthur Goldstuck.

“In South Africa it became an issue, firstly because of Cell C blurring the lines with their ‘4GS’ term, and secondly because the Advertising Standards Authority has seen itself as the arbiter of such definitions in advertising materials,” said Goldstuck.

According to Goldstuck, HSPA+ and basic LTE are marketed in the USA without much controversy because the focus is on generational speed increments rather than on a very precise definition.

“So, if it represents a step change over 3G, which typically offered up to 7.2Mbps in the HSPA modems,” Goldstuck said, “then the market is happy for it to be called 4G.”

At 21Mbps, HSPA+ offers up to three times these speeds, which Goldstuck said makes it qualify as a step change in the consumer mind.

Arthur Goldstuck
Arthur Goldstuck - World Wide Worx

“As with the Americans, if you want 4G as in a fourth generation experience, you can have it,” Goldstuck said. “If you want it as in something officially defined as 4G, you have up to a year to wait.”

Van Zyl differed from Goldstuck, explaining that as an engineer he believes we should stick to formal definitions, but that he also realises it’s a losing battle.

“I believe a practical compromise would be to call any technology that can deliver at least 100Mbps ‘4G’ and thus LTE (technically 3.9G) would qualify.”

Until the ITU decides otherwise, this cannot be formal, van Zyl said, but he added that if as an industry they can agree to call LTE at 150Mbps and HSPA+ at 168Mbps ‘4G’, and nothing else, they could have a workable solution.

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LTE “4G” and the iPad 3