ITU softens on the definition of 4G mobile

SAN FRANCISCO — After setting off a marketing free-for-all by effectively declaring that only future versions of LTE and WiMax will be 4G, the International Telecommunication Union appears to have opened its doors and let the party come inside.

In October, the global standards group declared that after long study it had determined which technologies truly qualified for its IMT-Advanced label, sometimes called 4G (fourth-generation). Only two systems made the list:

— LTE-Advanced, an emerging version of Long-Term Evolution technology now being deployed in the U.S. by MetroPCS Wireless and Verizon Wireless;

— and WirelessMAN-Advanced, the next version of WiMax, also called WiMax 2. Sprint Nextel is deploying WiMax.

Neither LTE-Advanced nor WiMax 2 is commercially available yet.

Stripping the official 4G title from current versions of LTE and WiMax was the perfect foil for T-Mobile USA to wholeheartedly advertise its HSPA+ (High-Speed Packet Access Plus) network as 4G. [By comparison, the wireless carriers that have HSPA+ networks — BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp., Videotron Ltee, Wind Mobile and Mobilicity — usually describe them as 3G or 3G+ networks.]

But on Dec. 6, deep in the text of a press release about the opening of the ITU World Radiocommunication Seminar 2010, the august United Nations-affiliated agency appears to have caved in like a substitute teacher.

“As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as ‘4G,'” the press release said, “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.”

LTE, WiMax and HSPA+ all can deliver multiple megabits per second upstream and downstream, far more than most existing 3G networks.

Word of the softened language was just beginning to spread this week and was noted by networking news site Light Reading.

ABI Research analyst Philip Solis, who wrote a blog entry about the change, said it was about time the ITU changed its tune, but he said the group still doesn’t have it right.

“I’ve been saying for a while that the ITU is wrong. It’s good to see that they acknowledged it,” Solis said.

The true next generation of mobile came with OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing Access), a fundamental advance over 3G that was embodied in WiMax and LTE, according to Solis. The ITU defined IMT-Advanced based on throughput speeds, mostly as a way of organizing radio spectrum assignments, he said. The actual technology standards are defined by the 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project) in the case of LTE, and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) in the case of WiMax.

“The ITU is wrong to tie 4G to IMT-Advanced, because they’re not the ones who define 4G,” Solis said.

But the organization is also wrong in its concession to the competing 4G claims, because HSPA+ can never accurately be called 4G, he said. “It’s a very good, very fast 3G network, but it’s still a 3G network,” Solis said.

That said, Solis acknowledged that for the average consumer who seeks out a fast network and is satisfied with its performance, whether the network is truly 4G will never make a bit of difference.

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