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

News Analysis: Now that T-Mobile has started calling its HSPA+ network a 4G service, it's time to talk about what 4G really is and whether or not T-Mobile or anyone else has a true 4G service.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...