Despite the hullabaloo over 4G LTE networks at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show this week, new research from Nielsen shows Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are struggling to get the message of their 4G data networks across.
Nielsen surveyed more than 2,100 U.S. adults and found one in five wireless consumers are not aware of 4G. Of the remaining four that have heard of 4G, only two said they understand it.
"That's not surprising, since in this case consumer confusion mirrors industry confusion," wrote Doug Kellogg, senior manager for Telecom Research & Insights at Nielsen. "Mobile carriers' aggressive advertising campaigns have been successful in raising awareness of 4G, but may have a ways to go in terms of education about the benefits of 4G."
For example, Kellogg noted that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) revised its definition of 4G to include any technology that is a "meaningful improvement" over 3G. This means Sprint's 4G WiMax, T-Mobile's HSPA+ and Verizon's 4G LTE network all qualify.
Kellogg drilled down into the numbers a bit and found that when 54 percent of respondents were asked to define 4G, they selected the original ITU definition: mobile data speeds of more than 100 megabits per second. No carrier worldwide meets that speed requirement.
Apple's iPhone branding isn't helping. Kellogg said 27 percent of respondents believe that the iPhone 4 is actually 4G-eabled "likely due to the naming conventions of the last several iPhone devices: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4."
Here's the somewhat silver lining in all of this: While consumers may not fully grok 4G-and who can blame them after the changes-three in 10 consumers surveyed said they are planning on buying a 4G device within the next 12 months.
That bodes well for the carriers. While Sprint and T-Mobile have offered 4G-enabled phones for months, Verizon promised to deliver at least 10 4G LTE devices by midyear.
Upcoming 4G Verizon gadgets include the Motorola Droid Bionic and HTC Thunderbolt smartphones and the Motorola Xoom tablet.
What will buyers of those gadgets have to look forward to? Verizon President and COO Lowell McAdam said Verizon's 4G LTE network will shuttle data up to 10 times faster than the current 3G networks, and cut latency in half.
AT&T, the last U.S. entrant in the 4G sweepstakes, pledged to deliver more than 20 4G devices this year, though its LTE network won't be ready until the end of 2011.
To prepare for that speedy platform, Motorola introduced a very attractive Atrix 4G smartphone for AT&T at CES, while HTC will offer the Inspire 4G and Samsung the Infuse 4G on AT&T.
Jeff Bradley, a senior vice president for AT&T Mobility, said AT&T will ultimately offer both HSPA+ and LTE, "giving customers the best possible path to 4G."
Despite all the 4G network posturing, consumers will decide for themselves the right smartphone to buy when they feel it in their hands, IDC analyst Elisabeth Rainge told the New York Times.
"Regular consumers think more about the handset than the network," Rainge said. "If they build LTE, will they come?"