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Monday, February 01, 2010

Debating the use of the term "4G"

I'm noticing an increasing use of the term 4G to describe either WiMAX or LTE networks.

It makes me wince, (although I've probably fallen into the "convenience trap" myself a couple of times).

Yes, they're both different to current versions of 3G, and use techniques like OFDMA - but so what? That doesn't make them 4G any more than it made EDGE (part of GSM) into 3G.

From a purist point of view, 4G doesn't yet exist. 3G refers to the families of technologies covered by the ITU's definition of "IMT 2000". 4G is expected to be the term used for the forthcoming "IMT Advanced" specifications currently being thrashed out by ITU, for which there are two prospective main candidates - LTE Advanced and WiMAX variant 802.16m.

Any use of the term 4G at present is therefore pure marketing fluff. A lot of WiMAX and LTE operators and device/network suppliers are fluffing, in an effort to come up with a brand that conveys evolution and new-ness.

The irony that the WiMAX community a huge amount of time and effort to convince ITU that their technology was in fact 3G (and therefore allowed to use IMT-2000 spectrum bands) seems to be ignored.

My instinctive reaction is to "deduct some credibility points" from the offenders when I see their announcements, or talk to their executives. If they are that sloppy that they mis-describe their technology, then surely it's reasonable to assume they're also sloppy about other aspects of their business?

Yet after a while, the practice may become so entrenched that even the more sensible participants have to wince, take a deep breath and mis-use the term 4G as well, so as not to lose out in the marketplace. If you can't beat them, you have to join them.

So, some solutions:

1) Any operator launching HSPA+ should also describe it as 4G. Well, if it's got MIMO, then it's *also* different from existing 3G. If the OFDMA guys are going to pick arbitrary definitions, then they can hardly complain when you do the same.

2) An operator with a brave PR department (and possibly a good legal team) should publicly take rivals to task for using 4G, using terms like "misleading", "lying", "sloppy" or "false advertising". Potentially, some of the current providers are on thin ice with regard to consumer protection law - although as the ITU hasn't yet called IMT-Advanced "4G" the response is probably that there's no strict definition in place.

3) Lobby the ITU to hurry up and call IMT-Advanced "4G" while it still has the ability to do so, before it gets lost in the marketing waffle.

As for me - well, I'm going to rely on the body language and non-verbal communications of people I speak to. If someone says 4G when describing their new LTE or WiMAX gizmo, but slightly winces, or rolls their eyes, or grits their teeth... then I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they brazenly, unashamedly and unequivocally claim the 4G label for their 3G goods, I'll definitely be looking closely to find what else they've glossed over.


Sami said...

I tend to agree with you on the big picture.

Dean: "...use techniques like OFDMA - but so what? That doesn't make them 4G any more than it made EDGE (part of GSM) into 3G."
If we want to stick with the ITU definitions, then EDGE is 3G. To be precise, it is the IMT-SC of the IMT-2000 family of radio interfaces.

Dean: "...time and effort to convince ITU that their technology was in fact 3G..."
Some operators might want to see LTE as 3G, so that they could deploy it with the existing licences.

As before, I work for Nokia and opinions above are mine.

Russ McGuire said...

For whom do you think the labels 3G and 4G are most important?

At this point, I doubt it's the telecom/wireless industry (we're the ones that care deeply about ITU definitions). We all will talk amongst ourselves about specific implementations of specific technologies, not some broad "4G" or "IMT Advanced" or whatever definition that the ITU eventually settles on.

Right now, the only audience that needs any designation is the buyers of service. We as an industry have been guilty for too long of forcing obscure acronyms onto the public ("Buy our ADSL++ service instead of their HDSL service...").

So, for now, all that matters is the marketing terms. 4G has the advantage of being easy for the average joe to understand it must be faster than the 3G we've already forced him to learn about.

(As always, my comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer...)

Dean Bubley said...

Russ - by that logic, surely HSPA+ running at 21Mbit/s is therefore 5G and you'd be sanguine about your competitors stealing a marketing lead on you?

And so by the time we get to LTE or 802.16m, they will be 6G or 7G?

The irony is that many of the so-called 4G networks are likely to be significantly poorer in terms of customer experience than the evolved variants of 3G. (In the same way that EDGE often works better than non-HSPA versions of UMTS)

I'm consistently amazed by how "normal people" actually *do* seem to understand acronyms. HSDPA sees pretty well-understand, as does "N" WiFi and all sorts of other things.

Most cars seem to have impenetrable R, S, SX, GT suffixes but people have learnt to understand them too.

Anonymous said...

3G is now a widely used term. In TV ads etc. So I think this is normal marketing. Who cares about ITU anymore? This is not 1980 or ISDN.

Moh Yan said...

4G has existed for a long time now.

It is by definition the generation
beyond 3G. When one talks of "xG" , you
are speaking in terms of :

1. radio interface max bit rates
2. service access/mobility
3. network architecture

For 1, the rough guide is an order of
magnitude increase. UMTS brought a
2Mb max over the 112kb max of GSM.

For 2, 4G was all about access from
WiFi hotspots, mobile networks, true
fixed-mobile convergence (telephony
and Interent) .

For 3, 4G was all about breaking away
from the canonical RAN architecture
(BSC + BS 'trees' etc) . Office
environments, residential (femtocell
etc) , traditional, fixed-mobile
convergence (IMS, NGN etc) .

So on the above, WiMAX is a 4G radio
interface (10s of Mb bit rate) , 2G
service/access mobility, and 2G network
architecture (CSN/ASN GW + BS are
still the CN/BSC/BS architecture of 2G).