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Why some “4G” phones are not quite 4G

Posted: , posted by Ray S.

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Why some “4G” phones are not quite 4G
In today's state of the market, one of the most touted and sought-after features in phones is 4G. Indeed, the ability to take advantage of much faster data speeds, compared to what we had just a year ago, is nothing short of awesome, as we're increasingly using our phones to connect to the internet, for most various reasons.

But are we really getting 4G with all of those 4G-branded devices out there, and could it be so that some carriers are simply using the term in order to make their devices look more attractive, without delivering the true 4G connectivity that is expected from such a device?


4G in networks

Why some “4G” phones are not quite 4G
Most of you probably remember that the initial rulings by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) indicated that none of the current carrier networks were 4G. Initially, it was only the next-generation LTE-Advanced and WiMAX 2 technologies that were considered 4G, due to their ability to offer download throughputs of about 100 Mbit/s. However, once the carriers started reasoning that their current services offer significant improvements over standard 3G that shouldn't be overlooked, the ITU eventually decided the all three current technologies – LTE, WiMAX and HSPA+, should be considered fourth-generation.

So far, so good. However, it seems that even with the ITU's now more relaxed understandings of what a 4G network is, there are still some phones on the market, which are branded as “4G”, but actually do not deliver those promised speeds. How come?

Why some “4G” phones are not quite 4G
Before HSPA+, there was HSPA, an enhanced version of original 3G networks. HSPA (standing for High-Speed Packet Access) was defined in 3GPP's (this is the institution where all these standards originate from) Release 5 and 6, where it is clearly stated that HSPA allows for theoretical peak downlink speeds of 14.4 Mbit/s, and theoretical peak uplink speeds of 5.76 Mbit/s. Again, HSPA is still considered 3G (some like to call it 3.5G).

The HSPA+ standard is first specified in 3GPP Release 7, where it is defined to offer peak speeds of 21 Mbit/s on the downlink, and 11.5 Mbit/s on the uplink. This is the technology that is considered 4G by the ITU.


What about 4G in phones?

Even with 4G in their names, the ATRIX 4G and Inspire 4G are not HSPA+ phones
Even with 4G in their names, the ATRIX 4G and Inspire 4G are not HSPA+ phones

Even with 4G in their names, the ATRIX 4G and Inspire 4G are not HSPA+ phones

And here lies our problem with some of the current phones on the market by AT&T and T-Mobile, which have that overused 4G moniker added to their names. A quick look at the spec sheets of some of those devices shows that they only offer peak download speeds of 14.4 Mbit/s, and upload speeds of 5.76 Mbit/s. Examples for such phones on AT&T are the LG Thrill 4G, Motorola ATRIX 4G, HTC Inspire 4G, HP Veer 4G... while on T-Mobile, such handsets are the HTC Sensation 4G and myTouch 4G. So, even though these handsets do not meet the performance requirements outlined in the official HSPA+ standard, AT&T and T-Mobile have decided to call them “4G”, which is obviously misleading, to say the least.

Recently, we've begun to see phones with the radios that are capable enough to be called 4G, or at least when it comes to download. T-Mobile's myTouch 4G Slide, Samsung Exhibit 4G, Sidekick 4G and Galaxy S 4G are good examples of that. All of these handsets deliver theoretical peak download speeds of 21 Mbit/s, which can be safely considered true HSPA+ connectivity. Well, when it comes to the uplink, those handsets still max out at 5.76 Mbit/s, which is well below the possible 11.5 Mbit/s for HSPA+, so from that point of view, these devices are still semi-4G. But considering that download is more important than upload to most users, let's say that we can live with this.

The Exhibit 4G and Galaxy S 4G are examples of true 4G HSPA+ phones, at least in terms of download speeds
The Exhibit 4G and Galaxy S 4G are examples of true 4G HSPA+ phones, at least in terms of download speeds
We inquired T-Mobile, in order to see what their position is with regards to why they are calling those HSPA 14.4 Mbit/s phones “4G”. T-Mobile's explanation was that they think of those devices as 4G, because even if they do not comply to the requirements for peak HSPA+ speeds, they still offer improved latency and better performance (obviously, compared to 3G devices). So, there you have it, the carrier decides that it can have 4G devices, without them being fully compliant to the standards.

We also inquired AT&T, and they first tried to explain that their devices take full advantage of the HSPA+ network in areas where it is combined with "enhanced backhaul". However, this simply means that HSPA+ capable handsets are able to take full advantage of the network in those areas. But when we pointed out that they actually lack such handsets, as all of the "4G" phones in their lineup, except for the Infuse 4G, currently max out at 14.4 Mbit/s (normal, 3G HSPA), they agreed. So it looks like they are just adding that "4G" part in their phones' names for the sake of attraction.

It turns out your “4G” phone may actually not be quite 4G, in case you are using one of those models that do not comply to the characteristics outlined in 3GPP's Release 7 and up. The best way to check if the model you're currently eying or having is truly HSPA+ 4G capable, is to take a look at its specs page on our site. In the General Info section (the first one), under Data, it should say “HSPA+ (4G)”, with maximum HSDPA speed of at least 21 Mbit/s (to be precise, it can have 17.6 Mbit/s download and still be 4G, as this is an additional 4G HSPA+ category, which, however, has not been used in phones).

It is clear that the way AT&T and T-Mobile are acting with regards to their “4G” phones isn't really upright, since a lot of users could be misled to believe they are actually using a device that is compliant to the official standards. To us, this isn't how a company should treat its customers. Now you can share your thoughts below!

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