Sticklers for detail who've been long arguing that current "4G" networks aren't really fourth-generation technology at all will be glad to hear that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has finally agreed on what constitutes true 4G service – and it's a lot faster than what's on the market right now.

At a meeting in Genevea yesterday, the ITU agreed on specifications for IMT-Advanced –  commonly known as "true" fourth generation technology –  and decided that LTE-Advanced and Wireless MAN-Advanced qualified for IMT-Advanced status.

So how fast are IMT-Advanced technologies? ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said in a statement that IMT-Advanced technologies "will make the present day smartphone feel like an old dial-up Internet connection."

The sentiment was echoed by Francois Rancy, director of the ITU's Radiocommunication Bureau, who said that "IMT-Advanced would be like putting a fiber optic broadband connection on your mobile phone, making your phone at least 500 times faster than today's 3G smartphones."

The standard uses spectrum more efficiently than older technologies, allowing higher amounts of data to be sent over smaller amounts of bandwidth. This efficiency will be crucial as wireless operators struggle to cope with a deluge of mobile data traffic.

The argument over what qualifies as real fourth-generation wireless technology and what is merely an upgraded 3G service hit a boiling point in December 2010 amid widespread marketing of WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ as "4G" service. The issue prompted the ITU the release a statement that seemed to concede that 4G had become more of a marketing term instead of a technical specification.

"As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as '4G,' 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," the standards body said.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint have all voiced their intentions to deploy LTE-Advanced, and Clearwire says the TD-LTE overlay for its WiMAX network will be "LTE-Advanced-ready." They're all currently marketing their respective LTE and WiMAX services as 4G, and T-Mobile USA advertises its HSPA+ service as 4G.

Sprint said last fall its LTE-Advanced network would be considerably faster than the LTE service it's currently constructing. This brings up an interesting question for the operator's marketing department: Should they call it "5G"?