New bill addresses confusion over meaning of “4G” – National Consumers League

By Larry Rose, NCL Public Policy Intern

You’ve probably heard the term “4G” being mentioned a lot recently. And, if you’re like most consumers, you probably have no clue as to what that means. In theory, a fourth generation, (4G) wireless network is a network that offers significantly greater speed than the third generation (3G) wireless networks that most smartphones run on.  The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) used to define 4G services as broadband technology that has a speed exceeding 100 M bit/s.  ITU later changed the definition of 4G to any form of mobile broadband that marks a meaningful improvement over 3G services. This definition is vague and allows the telecommunications industry to refer to many different types of mobile broadband as “4G.”

The four largest members of the telecommunications industry all provide services that are advertised as being “4G.” However, these four companies use the term “4G” to refer to three different types of mobile broadband technology. AT&T and T-Mobile advertise their Evolved High Packet Speed Access (HSPA+) networks as being “4G” despite the former company considering its HPSA+ network to be a mere “transition” to “true” 4G technology.  On the other hand, Verizon uses the term to refer to its Long Term Evolution (LTE) network, which typically provides faster speeds than the HPSA+ network. Sprint markets its WiMax technology as “4G” despite being somewhat slower than Verizon’s LTE network. These three services are considerably different from one another from a technological point of view, but they all operate under the same marketing label.  This creates difficulties for consumers who are trying to determine which wireless service to purchase.

Fortunately, consumers have found themselves a champion in Congress. Last month, Representative Anna Eshoo of California introduced H.R. 2281, the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act.  This bill requires wireless service providers to disclose information about the speed, reliability, price, network management policies and the terms of the wireless service, as well as costs for the service that are not included in the stated price and the technology used to provide the service. The bill would also direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a side-by-side comparison of the speeds and prices of the 4G services provided by the top 10 U.S. wireless carriers.

The telecommunications industry isn’t pleased with this bill. According to the CTIA, the bill adds unnecessary regulation at a time that Congress should be focused on finding more spectrum to devote to 4G technology.

A study from Nielson found that only two out of five consumers understand what the term “4G” actually means. 27% of respondents incorrectly believed that Apple’s iPhone 4 offers 4G technology . That false assumption was most likely aided by the fact that a previous version of the iPhone was called “iPhone 3G,” after the type of mobile broadband that it used.

Last week, NCL, joined the ranks of Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative in endorsing the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act. In an economy where many consumers rely on mobile broadband for Internet access, it is essential that consumers know what type of mobile broadband service they are purchasing.