Enough with the Gs. 3G, 3.5G, 4G: I've had enough. The Gs are all but meaningless at this point and, I fear, on the verge of becoming dangerously misleading to consumers.
Marketing execs may be counting down the days when they can put their national "3G" campaigns to bed and roll out shiny new "4G" ads across the land, but they're about the only ones who stand to benefit from the latest G. Consumers? They're going to wind up confused, misled and ticked off if we're not careful.
So I implore you, cellular carriers of America: No More Gs.
Last month at CTIA in Las Vegas, I saw two demos from major U.S. carriers that really encapsulate the problem with 3G vs. 4G advertising of consumer services. First, Sprint put on a big-time press event to launch its first 4G phone, the WiMAX-enabled HTC Evo 4G, which is slated to ship in June. Then, in a little meeting room in the recesses of the convention center, T-Mobile reps showed me their 3.5G (HSPA+) network in action.
T-Mobile's 3.5G is faster than Sprint's 4G, plain and simple. Not only that, but T-Mo lets users access voice and data simultaneously. Sprint doesn't. But the slower, less-featured service has "more Gs" in its name. What kind of sense does that make? None. So let's ditch the massive "Here comes 4G" advertising campaigns in favor of some real-world honesty. Sprint's WiMAX promises to be faster than its current EV-DO network, but it's not going to be faster than T-Mobile's "3.5G," so with any sort of common sense applied to the equation, it's just not right to champion it with "More Gs" than T-Mo's HSPA+.
I don't mean to pick on Sprint, or champion T-Mobile, as all four of the major U.S. carriers (and a few of the smaller ones) are talking about their 4G rollouts. And we all know that "Your Mileage May Vary" is the name of the game when it comes to cellular service on any given carrier in any given spot across our vast country. But facts are facts, and the facts say that T-Mo's 3.5G network is faster than Sprint's 4G network, plain and simple.
T-Mobile's HSPA+ has a theoretical cap of 21 Mbps for download speeds. Sprint's implementation of WiMAX tops out at 10 Mbps for peak downloads. Average download speeds are listed at 3-6 Mbps for WiMAX, according to the carriers themselves. T-Mobile's current "3G" HSPA implementation supports 7.2 Mbps peak downloads across its entire network, though only 10 current T-Mo devices (phones and data sticks) are 7.2 compatible.
I had the chance to try out both Sprint 4G and T-Mo 3.5G at CTIA and while both technologies were impressive, T-Mo's was more impressive. During that private demo, I saw the carrier's webConnect Rocket USB modem and Dell Mini 10 accessing the 21 Mbps network. They were fast. While neither got anywhere near 21 Mbps, both consistently broke 8 Mbps – and in real world terms, they streamed 1080p video from the cloud with no stuttering. I also have seen several reports of 9+ Mbps speeds around the Web (and, of course, from T-Mo reps), including this one from jkontherun.
Beyond that, I was able to upload video from my laptop via a "last-gen" webConnect Jet USB stick while riding a moving shuttle bus from LVCC back to my hotel. A firmware upgrade gave Jet access to T-Mo's HSPA 7.2 network, and my very unscientific real-world test yielded pretty great upload speeds.
Bear in mind that while neither network is anywhere near being available nationwide, Sprint has rolled out to a handful of commercial markets already while T-Mobile has launched HSPA+ in only three markets to date. By year's end, however, T-Mo's HSPA+ network will cover more potential users than Sprint's WiMAX, according to carrier claims. AT&T and Verizon Wireless, along with T-Mobile, are, of course, talking about their own 4G rollouts – currently slated to use LTE technology instead of WiMAX.
I know that carriers have to sell and it's the marketer's job to figure out to make consumers buy. That's why we see TV ads with catchy slogans and one-word terms instead of reams of data and technical jargon. But when the slogans and terms don't tell the real story, I've got a problem with the sales tactics. Sure, "4G" is newer and faster than "3G," so it stands to reason that adding another G is the way to sell it. Problem is, pesky old "3.5G" is actually proving to be faster and better than both 3G and 4G. So what to do?
How about ditching the Gs altogether and advertising speed instead? If car makers can do it with horsepower and MPG ratings, surely data carriers can infuse some truth in their advertising with Mbps numbers. I think consumers can handle it.
Noah Kravitz is editor-in-chief of PhoneDog.com.