When a standard isn’t a standard

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When I first came across this article about the roast of AT&T in a commercial for T-Mobile’s launch of the an HSPA+ “4G” network, it made me consider differences between the American and Canadian telecom industries.

The Wall Street Journal says that T-Mobile and Sprint are creating confusion with the use of 4G as a marketing term for the upgrades to their current 3G networks. According to the Journal, “T-Mobile defends its decision to brand its network as 4G, claiming it is faster—downloading data at five to eight megabits a second versus three to six megabits a second for Sprint and Clearwire.” 5-8 Mbps is supposed to be 4G?

As Zach Epstein on BGR notes,

[F]or a service to qualify as 4G, it must deliver peak download speeds of approximately 100Mbps in high-mobility environments (cell phones) and peak download speeds of approximately 1Gbps in low-mobility environments. Current technologies such as WiMAX, LTE and HSPA+ certainly do not meet these criteria.

The Journal article suggests LTE-Advanced and WiMAX2 will make the ITU standard for 4G but makes no mention of any major US telecom currently building such a network.

When Rogers launched HSPA in 2008, with a peak speed of 7.2Mbps, they called it 3.5G as it was on the road to 4G LTE.

TELUS is calling their current HSPA+ network 3G+, with similar speeds to Rogers. TELUS has been testing wireless network upgrades though, with a planned deployment of HSPA+ Dual Cell technology that, “combines two wireless data streams, operating at speeds of up to 21 megabytes per second each, into a single stream with downlink speeds up to 42 Mb/s.” The upgrade is supposed to be commercially available by Q1 2011 and, according to BIV, “the company does not expect the HSPA+ deployment to require a significant investment.”

Once the Dual Cell tech is ready, will TELUS be marketing it as 4G? It still won’t make the ITU definition but I think that its a large enough upgrade that there warrants some distinction from 3G. Of course, this might be the appropriate time to break out the 3.5/3G+ labels but if they’ve already been used, will Canadian carriers also discard/ignore the ITU standard? If T-Mobile upgrades to Dual Cell, will they bill it as a 5G network?

One has to wonder if regulatory pressure will force telecoms north and south of the border to shelf 4G claims or will business considerations create a dual definition for 4G, one for consumers and one technical? How will the recent US mid-term elections impact this marketing/technical contest for the 4G term? (As an aside, Matthew Lasar asks, ‘Did Republican House Landslide Kill Net Neutrality?’)

Any FCC decision that results will likely impact the Industry Canada/CRTC viewpoint and it’ll be interesting to see how the uncertainty weighs on TELUS’ marketing campaign for their latest network upgrades. The relatively low cost of the upgrades could also result in more Canadian’s choosing to upgrade to smartphones, as long as some of the value is passed along to consumers.