The International Telecommunications Union is not immune from silly political gaffes. When it recently defined “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” as the only “official definitiions of “fourth generation” networks, the ITU automatically made networks operated by Sprint, Clearwire, Verizon, MetroPCS and all other operators of WiMAX and Long Term Evolution networks something other than standards-based “4G” networks.

It began by defining all real-world 4G networks out of existence. Now it has confounded the problem by saying that some “3G” networks are “4G,” while the formal “pre-4G” networks in existence, or about to be built, also are “4G.”

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Some of us would argue that is a good thing, as the world wasn’t going to stand around waiting for 4G to come “some day.” And despite the obvious marketing issues, which had service providers arguing about whether competitors could call their new services “4G” (T-Mobile USA’s HSPA+ network being a prime example), the ITU’s vacillation now means operators are free to sell their services, and users are free to evaluate services, based not on technology labels but on value, price, terms and conditions, as they should.

Consumers don’t buy standards, they buy products, features and value. In that sense, “4G” right now means “faster network,” whatever else we might hope it comes to mean. If the main user-perceived difference between 3G and 4G consists of “speed” and “price,” then consumers won’t care what air interface is used.

At some point, lead applications might come into clearer focus, and some devices might actually create the draw. Some users likely chose to use the Sprint network because of the HTC Evo, for example, and not because of a perceived advantage to the WiMAX, LTE or HSPA+ air interfaces. All three networks run much faster than the earlier networks did, and the actual air interface standard is not generally an issue.

At this point, given both market realities and the ITU’s definitional waffling, we can simply describe HSPA+, LTE and WiMAX networks, as they now exist, as “4G.”

As for the future, networks will continue to evolve. And it might be argued that 4G networks now will continue to evolve based more on commercial and marketplace-based adoption than on the formal standards.

Devices, features and other attritributes of service now will develop based to a large extent on commercial dynamics.

That doesn’t mean the framework has changed; merely that once critical mass has been achieved in the market, development will assume that reality.

So far, the markets, and end users, have decided the path for next-generation networks, in large part. That could well happen here as well. No matter what the ITU thinks, if voluntary groups such as the GSM decide to evolve LTE in some other direction, the existence of a formal standard will not deter them.

That is not to fault the well-intentioned hard work of the technologists working on the standard. The point is simply that the global telecommunications industry has yet to prove it can devise a “next-generation” network standard that real-world operators actually embrace obviously, and with great commercial success. Instead, the pattern so far has been that network operators and end users sort of grope towards better solutions as best they can.

For a discussion of the ITU standards, read this: http://www.itu.int/itunews/manager/display.asp?lang=en&year=2008&issue=10&ipage=39&ext=html and this http://www.networkworld.com/news/2010/121710-itu-softens-on-the-definition.html.

For a discussion of the change, arguing that the ITU now has erred twice on the same subject, see http://www.abiresearch.com/research_blog/1520.

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