T-Mobile's HSPA+ Network: Is It Really 4G?

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-11-03

T-Mobile's HSPA+ Network: Is It Really 4G?

T-Mobile has just announced that it's going to start calling its HSPA+ service in the United States a 4G service. The reasoning is that it's really fast (faster than Sprint's 4G) and that it has the ability to eventually meet the 4G speed requirements. Sprint, of course, started the whole thing by announcing its WiMax 4G service earlier in 2010. Verizon Wireless announced that it will be offering its LTE service as a 4G service in 38 cities by the end of the year.  

There are two things that you should know about these 4G offerings. First, none of them is really 4G. We know this because the International Telecommunications Union has already drafted the basic outlines of what constitutes 4G service-it must offer downloads of 100M bps for mobile devices and 1G bps for fixed or portable devices. It must also use TCP/IP as the networking protocol. Right now, nobody is even close to the speed requirements. 

But of course, since the ITU hasn't formally defined what 4G means, the term is technically meaningless, kind of like calling something "all natural." On the other hand, the ITU has announced what 4G is not, and what Sprint and Verizon Wireless are calling 4G are both on the list of things that are not 4G, at least in their current incarnation. The ITU doesn't mention HSPA+ at all, so T-Mobile hasn't been told that its offering isn't 4G, but it also hasn't been told that it is. 

Fortunately for T-Mobile, an analyst firm, the Yankee Group, has decreed that HSPA+ is a 4G service. You can see the executive summary here. But you have to get the full report from Yankee Group. Fortunately, they sent me a copy, and I can tell you that it calls T-Mobile's HSPA+ a 4G service, along with WiMax from Sprint and Clearwire. Furthermore, it says that LTE from Verizon Wireless and others are 4G services. The Yankee Group apparently defines 4G as meaning "really fast." 

To some extent, this makes sense. The services for which the three carriers are claiming 4G status are indeed really fast, and T-Mobile's HSPA+ is clearly the most widespread and the fastest of the bunch. When I tested T-Mobile's then 3G now 4G HSPA+ back in October, the speeds were impressive.

If Its Really Fast, Then Its 4G


More importantly, the sheer speed of the network made using an HSPA+ enabled G2 phone a transforming experience. There's a lot of the Android OS that's cloud-based, and the nearly instant access, high data rates and low latency made the cloud links virtually seamless. Even more impressive was T-Mobile's Rocket 2 USB wireless stick, which appeared to run faster than the WiFi connection at the burger joint where I tried it out. 

The Yankee Group report also makes an important distinction between the old 3G services that have been around for a few years now and the services it's calling 4G: These new services actually work well. The point of this is that if they work well enough, nobody is going to care what the ITU says. As far as they're concerned, they're 4G because everything is faster than the old, cruddy 3G they used with their iPhones. Of course, these new services are indeed an improvement-except if you own an iPhone, in which case you're going to be stuck with AT&T's old, clunky 3G anyway. 

So the question is, what constitutes 4G? Right now, there's no official answer because the ITU hasn't finalized a definition. As a result, 4G is anything you want it to be. The carriers are calling their new higher-speed offerings 4G because they have to call them something, and consumers aren't going to understand what they mean by LTE, WiMax or HSPA+. That's for us geeks who actually read the stuff that comes out of the standard-setting bodies so you don't have to. 

Right now, T-Mobile is using "4G" as a marketing term that translates as "really fast." In fact, it is really fast and, more important, more widely available than 4G from Sprint, which has been hampered by Clearwire's difficulties in deployment, and by Verizon Wireless' late start with LTE. 

Even when Verizon Wireless gets its 38 cities deployed, it will still be behind T-Mobile in the 4G race, and it may be awhile before it catches up. HSPA+ has the advantages that it's easier to upgrade to true 4G and it can use most of the current infrastructure. Sprint, meanwhile, is already looking for a solution to the deployment problems of WiMax-perhaps planning to team up with Clearwire's LTE. Hapless AT&T, on the other hand, may never catch up, considering that it hasn't even started the race and won't until next year. 

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