One reason it's so hard to make an informed choice about which cell phone carrier to choose is the confusion about what actually constitutes 4G. A year ago, the ITU, or International Telecommunications Union, a body that sets standards, defined 4G as a technology that enabled download speeds of 100 megabits per second. After the carriers complained, they lowered the standard to about half of that.
You'll also hear carriers talking about technologies called HSPDA and HSPDA+ which aren't 4G, but are faster than 3G. It's so confusing that a recent survey of users by a company called Retrevo found that as many as one-third of all iPhone owners thought they already had 4G service, which they don't, of course. Blackberry phones aren't 4G-compatible either, but a quarter of their owners also think they have 4G.
None of that would matter very much if consumers could rely on the carriers to publish accurate statistics on how fast their service really is. But they don't. It's not that they're lying, but the tests they base their claims on are conducted under ideal conditions that do not replicate the experience of an actual user, says Moore.
To begin with, those tests are generally conducted outdoors where there's less interference of the kind you'd experience at home or at the office. And when they measure the speed of downloads and uploads, they aren't using a phone at the downstream end, but a bundle of circuits, he says.
That's why you'll notice that carrier ads and contracts always say that connections are "up to" such and such a speed. That's also the case with wired DSL and cable technologies; consumers almost never enjoy the advertised theoretical speed.
By contrast, Root Metrics performs between 4,000 and 5,000 indoor and outdoor tests (some automated) in a metro area with off-the-shelf phones, measuring both data and voice quality, says Moore.
My advice: Don't jump on the 4G bandwagon just yet. Wait and see what experiences your friends and co-workers have in areas where you'll want to use your new phone. And stay tuned for more confusing ads when AT&T launches its version of 4G later this summer.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline