Are Australia's 3G networks really 4G? It's complicated...

Are Australia's 3G networks really 4G? It's complicated...

Apple has today claimed that Australia’s 3G networks are actually 4G networks if compared to international standards, and that our carriers have simply mislabelled them. And while we may ponder what was in their lawyer’s head when he made that statement, the 4G issue is, well, really complicated.

First, let’s explore what each carrier uses. At a base level, all carriers support UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) as their 3G standard. That standard is not deemed by the International Telecommunications Union – the peak international body – to be a 4G standard.

Telstra has also implemented the HSPA+ standard in some of its towers – and here is where we get to the tricky part.

HSPA+ is not officially recognised by the ITU as a 4G standard – so, win for the ACCC.

However, the ITU has pretty much opened up the definition of what 4G (all for the ‘sake of the consumer’) which allows carriers to promote it as a 4G network – like AT&T.

Saying in a statement:

As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G”, although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.

Translation: HSPA+, LTE and WiMax are allowed to be promoted as ‘4G’ despite the fact that the ITU will not recognise them as such.

But, wait? LTE and WiMax? Aren’t they 4G standards?

Well, no. The official definition of 4G, as set out by the ITU themselves, basically ruled out LTE and WiMax as ‘official’ 4G standards. This was because they did not meet the peak speed requirements of 1 gigabit/second speeds for “low mobility communication” (or, in other words, the speed you get if you were standing on the sidewalk and sending a simple Twitter message).

And the ITU was pretty strict on its definition on what should be called 4G, until it realised that every mobile operator – especially with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint – and every mobile phone manufacturer was going to ignore it for ‘marketing’. And hence, the much looser definition – meaning that the mobile operators can market LTE, HSPA+ and WiMax as a 4G network, despite the fact that the ITU will simply ignore it.

This also means that Telstra has essentially lied. Their 4G network running on LTE is not in fact a 4G network. Under the original ITU definition, this would simply be an addition to its 3G network. Thanks to the ITU’s looser definition, it can market LTE as a 4G network.

But what is a 4G standard under the ITU? Well, there are two standards that have been recognised as an official standard: LTE Advanced and IEEE 802.16m. These are basically more compliant versions of LTE and WiMax; but neither standard is expected to be commercially deployed for several more years.

Until true 4G is deployed, we’re stuck with this marketing fallacy.

Image: Droid Life

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