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By Dan Rowinski

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AT&T and the case of the missing 4G

The blogosphere and mainstream media are up in arms over the supposed 4G technology that carriers AT&T and T-Mobile are deploying. The claim is that not only are the speeds not “4G-worthy,” they are not even as fast as the 3G networks being deployed.

AT&T has been the target of most of the scorn because it has more or less admitted to capping the uplink speeds in its High Speed Uplink Packet Access on some of its non-iPhone 4 devices with the 4G label, such as the Motorola Atrix and the HTC Inspire.

HSPA+ as a standard is split between uplink (HSUPA) and downlink (HSDPA). So far the current controversy surrounding AT&T only has to do with the uplink portion of the standard.

PCMag.com did an uplink speed test between the iPhone 4, Atrix and Inspire last week using an application from Ookla called SpeedTest. They hooked all three phones up through the same server and performed the test six times in New York City. The test showed that the iPhone was getting uplink speeds closer to what HSPA+ is capable of while the Atrix and Inspire had speeds closer to the Univeral Mobile Telecommunications System that AT&T uses for its “3G” network.

There are variables that could affect the test, such as device radios and processors and interaction with the server PCMag used, so take the results as interesting but perhaps not definitive.

Technology blog Engadget has been following the AT&T “HSUPA-gate” and found that the carrier has “not turned on” HSUPA for most of its devices outside of the iPhone 4. That would affect all of its Android devices, such as the Atrix, Inspire and the Samsung Captivate (disclaimer – that is the phone that I carry; it also was on the cover of the December 2010 GCN print issue for our “Best Products Of 2010.”)

Specifically, according to Engadget, AT&T requires that all of its devices “handshake” with Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Release 5, which does not support HSPA. The iPhone has been allowed to connect through Release 6, which does support HSPA.

AT&T has not denied that its 4G network using HSPA+ is not actually using its so-called 4G technology. It has merely said that it has not “turned on” HSPA+ for devices like the Atrix. The accusation leveled against the carrier is that it is “capping” uplink speeds on these devices. AT&T released a statement denying that it was capping uplinks on any devices.

From AT&T on CNET.com:

“Be assured that AT&T has not ‘capped’ the upload speeds on the Atrix 4G. The Atrix 4G is an HSUPA-capable device, and we currently are performing the testing and preparations necessary to ensure that, when we turn this feature on, you will continue to have a world-class experience. Please keep in mind, software is only one of many factors that can affect speeds experienced. Factors such as location, time of day, network capacity and facilities can have an impact as well."

That is a load of public relations-speak right there, but, trying to read between the lines, you see that AT&T is saying that in certain areas – “network capacity and facilities” – the backhaul on the network is limiting

AT&T has recently said that it will eventually turn on HSUPA capabilities for devices that are capable of using it but are limited currently by the carrier.

There are potential legal problems for AT&T if it is proved that it has been using false advertising concerning 4G-capable devices. Essentially, the carrier is claiming that it has HSUPA capability, but in reality its network backhaul is not yet ready to support it and thus it has not turned the service on for a range of devices.

The problem, as we have touched on before at GCN, is that right now there is actually no such thing as 4G. There are three standards that the International Telecommunications Union has allowed to be called 4G because they offer “significant upgrades to 3G technology” – HSPA+, Long Term Evolution (LTE) and Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax). The ITU, by caving on its definition of what 4G actually stands for (1 gigabit/sec downlink, 500 megabits/sec uplink from a stationary position), has created this entire marketing mess and AT&T has exacerbated it by not even being able to follow through on the ITU’s relaxed guidelines for the use of the 4G term (which classifies “forerunners to actual 4G”).

The end effect is that consumers -- enterprise, government and the general public – are not benefiting in the short term from the overblown promises of companies looking at the dollars that marketing, if not actual technological reality, can produce for their bottom line. These technologies will eventually mature through LTE (and what will be considered true 4G with LTE-Advanced), which will not be universally available for three to five years, perhaps longer. The marketing departments of the carriers have bitten off more than their infrastructure can chew and it will be a while before the technology catches up to the promise.

Posted by Dan Rowinski on Mar 15, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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