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6/24/2011
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4G Wireless Bill Asks Carriers To Prove Speed

Vendors throw around the term 4G around in the same way that some snack companies abused "low fat." One lawmaker wants the carriers to clearly spell out what 4G means.

When people had a 2G or 3G phone, they had a pretty good idea of how it would perform online, as most 2G and 3G services were comparable between different carriers. Now, however, 4G has come to mean just about anything the carrier wants it to. The marketing department has taken over the responsibility of using technical terms to describe the network's performance.

The truth is, none of the networks have towers or phones that qualify for 4G, and carriers and manufacturers know it. Per the 4G spec, speeds should approach 100-Mbit/second, well above anything offered today. A few years ago, Hitachi referred to its LTE implementation as 3.9G. You can be sure, though, that no carrier will advertise their service as 3.9G. Full version updates sound much better than a point version. RIM just did this with the BlackBerry 7 name, which should have been 6.x.

The problem with 4G being advertised, aside from not being 4G at all, of course, is that the term means so many different things. Congresswoman Anna Eschoo just introduced a bill called the "Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act." Its intention is to make consumers more informed before committing to a multi-year plan by requiring the carrier to spell out exactly what they are selling. The bill has a number of requirements beyond the obvious speed claims:

-- Guaranteed minimum data speed;
-- Network reliability;
-- Coverage area maps;
-- Pricing;
-- Technology used to provide 4G service;
-- Network conditions that can impact the speed of applications and services used on the network.

These would have to be disclosed at the time of sale and be included in the billing materials. It should make it easier for people to compare carriers and see which is the best deal, though some of that information is bound to confuse. How many consumers would care about the technology used for the 4G service? Not many.

Network reliability though is interesting. Had this bill been enacted in 2007 for 3G networks, AT&T would have had a serious problem. Presumably if the carrier fails to live up to its claims, at a minimum the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission could levy fines. Worst case, it would be a violation of the contract and consumers would walk away with no early termination fee. I think the final requirement listed is an out, though: "Too many people downloading too much" would be a permissible network condition that can impact the speed of apps and services on the network.

The full text of the bill can be found here. It doesn't have a number assigned to it yet though, so it is very early in the process. I'll be curious to see how this moves through the House of Representatives. Do you think this kind of legislation is necessary or should market forces prevail?

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