If you went into a fast food restaurant and asked for a large fry but were served a medium, I'm guessing you'd complain. If you paid for a first class airline ticket but were actually seated in business class, once again, I'm guessing you would complain and demand a refund.

So why aren’t more people complaining about the absurdity of AT&T passing off its 3 to 5 Mbps HSPA+ network as "4G," when LTE can and does hit 12, even 16 Mbps regularly? My guess is because too few end-users actually care to investigate what 4G actually means to them beyond their carrier’s word that it’s faster and just plain better.

It wasn't until Apple rolled out iOS 5.1 this past week that I really began to look at “4G” for the huckster spin it really is. You see, this latest upgrade of iOS changes the AT&T network indicator in the upper left-hand corner of the screen on my iPhone 4S from 3G to 4G. The fact that the speed of my service hasn’t changed is apparently irrelevant. So too is the fact that what AT&T calls 4G is almost 3 times slower than what my friend gets on Verizon Wireless with his LTE-enabled HTC Thunderbolt.

Is it just me or is that the bitter taste of snake oil? If this were food stuffs or airline tickets, we’d call what AT&T and Apple are doing false, or at least misleading, advertising and I’m surprised that there haven’t been more lawsuits claiming just that.

The fact that AT&T will have customers falling back to HSPA+ from LTE only adds to the absurdity of the situation. How do you explain to a customer that when they fall back to HSPA+, which is exponentially slower than their LTE connection, they’re still on a 4G network?

The term 4G is meaningless, and the only reason we haven’t seen more lawsuits over the term, either between carriers or levied by consumers against carriers, is that most people really are just taking their carrier’s word that 4G is a step up from what they’re getting with 3G. And end users certainly don’t understand the terms LTE, WiMAX or HSPA+. 

I guess the real travesty is that this kind of marketing has been going on forever, and consumers have been falling for it about as long. The formula goes something like this. Rebrand that box of X Brand Soap as New and Improved X Brand Soap. New and Improved X Brand Soap is essentially the same soap you’ve always been getting, but you’ve phased out the old soap and can now charge a dime more because the new soap is new and improved insofar as the box is maybe a little prettier. That’s about what AT&T’s 4G label on my iPhone is: a prettier box of soap. 

It’s an issue that’s been written about since the ITU made its decision, but I think we’re coming to a place where Verizon Wireless will have to levy some kind of complaint for a distinction between HSPA+ and LTE. The LTE-capable iPad is set to bring a lot more attention to LTE and 4G. That new understanding is going to inform their next smartphone purchase, and my guess is that’s when we’re going to start seeing some fireworks.

One thing should be clear: 4G is a label adopted for the consumer’s benefit. Operators know the differences between LTE, HSPA+ and WiMAX. Consumers don’t and they shouldn’t have to be bothered with those technical terms. That’s why we have terms like 3G and 4G. 

The bottom line is that the sole qualifier for a 4G technology right now is that it be better, even by the smallest degree, than the technology that preceded it. To be fair, perhaps the ITU might come up with a 4.5G, or 4G+ classification that could somehow discern for the consumer the difference between an LTE connection and an HSPA+ connection. The 4G designation, as an LTE technology, really does have the stuff to offer consumers a next-generation experience.

However, if operators allow this product that has cost them billions to research, develop and deploy to be muddied by a range of lesser technologies, they will have pitifully misplayed what could have been a winning hand.