Confusion and Costs Make 4G a Hard Sell

Many smart phone owners are under the impression they have 4G service. We sort it out for you.

Eric Mack, Contributor

July 10, 2011

3 Min Read

Even though most smartphone users are technically twice-removed from true 4G data service, a new survey shows many think they already have it.

The new Retrevo Gadgetology study shows many iPhone and BlackBerry owners are under the false impression they already have 4G phones. THis is despite the fact that neither line currently supports 4G. Retrevo also notes that there are several Android 4G phones currently available, but probably not owned by all 29% of Android owners who say they have one.

Further confusing the matter is the fact that the level of service carriers are currently rolling out and promoting as 4G is not anywhere near true 4G as defined by the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU is a UN agency that tries to keep a handle on a number of things, including standards for radio and satellite telecommunications--Verizon, AT&T and Motorola are among the big names designated ITU "sector members."

In other words, all the big players were at the table when true 4G was conceived as wireless data service capable of peak speeds of 100 mbps when the user is moving at higher speeds (like when driving), and 1 gig per second when stationary or moving slowly (as in pedestrians). Nonetheless, Verizon and AT&T are marketing their next-generation networks as 4G, even though the most commonly seen speeds are only about one-tenth that required for true 4G.

So, while none of us have the real thing, the study reveals roughly a third of us think we have 4G, or at least what the carriers are calling 4G. But of those that think they have the faux 4G, a vast majority are probably mistaken and confusing it with 3G or "3.5G" networks like HSPA+.

All this means, besides again confirming the general public's difficulty with keeping tech nomenclature straight and the industry's failure at communicating it, is that 4G--fake or not--is going to be a hard sell.

The Retrevo study also found that fewer than a quarter of respondents plan to upgrade to 4G, with the overwhelming reasons for not switching to 4G being concerns over costs for the data plan, especially perceived underwhelming performance. A smaller group of users said they probably won't upgrade due to simple lack of knowledge about the technology.

While 4G might need a little more polish before users are willing to invest in a new device solely for 4G's sake, a strong majority of iPhone fans plan to buy the next-gen Apple smartphone regardless of 4G compatibility -- 61 percent say they'll buy or consider buying a new iPhone without 4G, according to the Retrevo survey.

For the time being, this survey shows 4G isn't quite the marketing tool AT&T and Verizon seem to think it is, judging by how heavily it plays in their current campaigns. But as both carriers continue their next-gen network rollouts, higher data speeds will simply come to be expected by users, regardless of the moniker they go by.

When the public is finally straight on what exactly 4G is, maybe then carriers will finally be ready to start offering the real thing -- a true 4G network that actually lives up to its name.

Eric Mack is executive editor of news at BYTE. Got a news story or idea? Email him at [email protected].

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