We're well past the dream of saving the term "4G" to describe 100Mbps mobile networks, which was the original intent laid out by the UN's International Telecommunication Union early in the last decade. We're also well past saving it for LTE and WiMAX, thanks to an intense marketing war waged by T-Mobile and AT&T in recent months to get us to associate it with the networks we used to call "3G." But I've realized today that the term has reached new levels of irrelevance, because they're not even saving it to describe the full capabilities of their newly-upgraded HSPA+ networks.
To be very clear, "4G" meant virtually nothing already; it just means less than ever now. Of course, branding is often meaningless and misleading -- no surprise there -- but in AT&T's case, it also means that HSPA users are being placed on "4G" data plans that are completely independent of their "3G" equivalents. This isn't merely a possibility, it's already happening to everyone that's got a device with "4G" in its name. And there's nothing stopping them from pricing these plans differently or offering 4G-specific data buckets down the road. With AT&T's promise to launch 20 "4G" devices this year, we're looking at a lot of subscribers -- and many of them won't be on HSPA+ or LTE.
First, a disclaimer: this isn't news -- it's actually been going on for months -- but it's something whose full gravity didn't really hit me until AT&T announced the HP Veer 4G today. HP had introduced the device simply as the "Veer" back in February, but AT&T ended up slapping the overheated, overused "4G" label on there... and that led me to go back and double-check the specs. Both AT&T's press release and Palm's official spec sheet for the Veer list the device as supporting Category 10 HSDPA and Category 6 HSUPA, which offer theoretical peak throughputs of 14.4Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up, respectively:
The Veer isn't slow, but it isn't HSPA+
The spec sheet clearly identifies HSPA, which consists of both HSDPA for high-speed downloads and HSUPA for high-speed uploads. Those standards were ratified in 3GPP Releases 5 and 6, respectively, while HSPA+ didn't show up until Release 7. If you sift through 3GPP press releases and specs, you'll find that 21Mbps is the generally-accepted minimum downlink speed for HSPA+ networks, though there's a Category 13 that runs 17.6Mbps. Regardless, there's nothing as low as 14.4 that would qualify.
By all appearances, AT&T has successfully stolen the term "HSPA+" from the 3GPP, just as T-Mobile stole "4G" from the ITU. A disclaimer at the bottom of AT&T's Veer 4G press release reads:
"4G speeds delivered by HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul."
That's professional-grade word mincing, folks. Yes, the Veer 4G is connecting to an HSPA+ network... it's just not connecting to said network at HSPA+ speeds. If it's not a lie, it's very, very close to one. And Palm shares some blame: though mentions of HSPA+ are missing from the Veer's product page, they flashed a slide back at the launch event proudly proclaiming support. It's just not true, unless the Category 10 / Category 6 spec is wrong.
AT&T made it very clear at its CES press conference this year that it considers both LTE and its upgraded HSPA+ network to be "4G." I don't recall any talk of pre-HSPA+ devices being included in there -- but if they were, it was marginalized. I don't blame them: the branding has been hard enough to swallow on HSPA+, let alone straight HSPA. If you go by the classical definition of HSPA+, zero handsets in AT&T's current lineup -- yes, that's right, zero -- support it.
T-Mobile takes slightly less blame for two reasons. One, it's not placing "4G" devices on separate plans. Two, it's not calling 14.4Mbps devices HSPA+ (though it does disclaim on those devices' product pages that the "4G HSPA+ network" isn't available everywhere). Of the five so-called 4G handsets that T-Mobile has launched thus far, only two -- the Samsung Galaxy S 4G and Sidekick 4G -- actually support HSPA+. The other three top out at 14.4Mbps, just as AT&T's do.
True HSPA+ exists, it's just hard to find
Ironically, both AT&T and T-Mobile are deploying authentic HSPA+ networks, and they're doing so aggressively; that's something to be proud of. Furthermore, both carriers offer true HSPA+ modems. Problem is, they've decided somewhere along the line to keep moving the "4G" term past the HSPA+ upgrade and into older, legacy technologies. 21Mbps handsets are still extraordinarily rare, and it's clear that these guys are itching for the 4G branding advantage -- they're not willing to wait for any semblance of legitimacy. Granted, even the 14.4Mbps offered by the Inspire 4G, Atrix 4G, and Veer 4G wouldn't be possible prior to the HSPA+ network upgrades, but it still represents a harder, faster, more tilted marketing spin on these networks than I've ever seen before.
AT&T's casting a wide net with '4G' -- and it could eventually hit your wallet
As I mentioned before, I should emphasize that AT&T is not currently charging customers on 4G data plans any more than the rest of its subscriber base -- nor does it offer them different data buckets -- but the fact that it's separated these folks onto their own plans already certainly seems like a precursor. And heck, to some extent, the capitalist in me doesn't even mind the principle of that -- companies are certainly within their right to charge more for better, faster services. My problem lies with the fact that these carriers' definitions of "4G" are more arbitrary than ever. They're literally meaningless, which makes it a bad litmus test for determining which type of plan a user will require.
Considering that HP's product page for the Veer 4G still identifies it simply as the "Veer," someone over there must agree.