AT&T joins the 4G fraudsters

U.S. wireless carrier latest to slap 4G label on existing 3G network

Wasn't it only a couple of months ago that AT&T was criticizing wireless carrier rival T-Mobile USA for bragging in ads about having "America's Largest 4G Network" when, in fact, T-Mobile's network was decidedly 3G? (Also see: In the spirit of 4G!)

What a difference a few weeks can make. AT&T has eagerly taken a page from the T-Mobile playbook and started referring to its 3G network as "4G", the Wall Street Journal reports: As recently as September, AT&T executives had referred to the company's current network, which runs on a technology it calls HSPA-plus, as 3G. But AT&T has subtly shifted its marketing message since then, now proclaiming "the nation's fastest mobile broadband network" instead of the fastest 3G network. The 4G network claim is already prominent on its consumer website and will be affixed to new phones being rolled out for its network this year. True enough, as you can see here. Fortunately for consumers still confused about what exactly 4G is, AT&T offers a helpful Q&A that explains the technology: Question: What is 4G? Answer: 4G means faster mobile broadband speeds – where data transfers take less time to complete. (Ooh, I have a marketing slogan coming on! This is a good one, so you carriers can fight over it. Ready? Here goes: "It's 4G if you want it to be". What's ingenious about that is it makes the suckers consumers feel empowered, which is the ideal state of mind for manipulating educating them.) The best part of AT&T's definition of 4G is that it avoids the fussy details obsessed over by the geeks at the International Telecommunication Union, which has established a downstream speed benchmark for 4G (fourth-generation) wireless of 100 Mbps (bits per second), a speed that no commercial wireless network can approach. This raises an obvious question: What makes a wireless standards group think it's better-qualified to set wireless performance standards than the experienced marketers employed by the wireless carriers? Honestly, some people. Granted, as the WSJ reports, the ITU last month "blessed applying the term (4G) to advanced 3G technologies." All that means is the standards group can't stop wireless carriers from making false claims, so why get into a fight over it? ITU no doubt has been dealing with exaggerating vendors ever since Western Union was calling its telegraph network 4G in the late 1870s. I'm sure it must get tiresome. Eventually all the wireless carriers will offer real, honest-to-goodness 4G technology. And when they do, they'll call it 5G.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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