Three Guys and a Podcast

Three Guys and a Podcast: Apple News & Analysis

April 04, 2012 at 8:50am Pacific Time
by: Mark Reschke
Categories: iOS Applications, iPad, iPhone, News, Products, Review

You may have noticed your iPhone 4S running on AT&T's network woke up one morning and suddenly became 4G device. Or perhaps you live in New Jersey, and you just bought a new 4G enabled iPad and you are cruising along at 4G speeds. Think these devices are 4G, running on AT&T's latest and greatest ultra-fast network speeds? Don't think different, think again, because odds are you never were, and are not, running on a 4G LTE network.

But of course you are, because the device says you have a 4G device. Silly me, questioning a carriers marketing schemes and bringing into question what's really going on. Sorry folks, time to disappoint some of you, at least for a while.

If you are a deer in headlights, don't worry, you are not alone. Only the heavy tech-handed understand what that term "4G" really means (which is pretty much nothing), so I'm going to do my best to explain it simple terms, so when you see a "4G" stamp your device, hopefully you'll be better informed on what you are truly buying.

The problem stems from carriers naming complicated technology acronyms with simplistic naming conventions that consumers can grasp, all for the sake of marketing their product. After all, doesn't 3G or 4G sound at lot more Mom-friendly than HSPA+?

Truth be told, if you live anywhere near civilization AT&T is running HSDPA, HSUPA/HSPA, HSPA+ or LTE. These are not acronyms made for marketing and terms non-techies would gloss over in mere seconds (I've probably lost some of you already). To make the technologies marketable, carriers called the earlier technologies "EDGE", while faster networks were named 3G (technically HSPA and HSPA+), and the newest technology, LTE, has been re-badged as 4G.

Not so fast. If only it were that simple. 

LTE was going to be the new 4G network naming convention, but someone in a pink dress got all confused and screwed everything up. Without the iPhone T-Mobile has been getting crushed, and desperate times have called for desperate measures. T-Mobile turned to gimmickry, and started declaring their HSPA+ network "4G". Meanwhile, AT&T had been calling it 3G. Same technologies, same theoretical speeds, different names. 

What's the harm? AT&T thought it would cause a lot of harm, as AT&T and Verizon were going calling their next generation network, LTE (Long Term Evolution), their new 4G network. LTE has been running up to 10x faster than HSPA+, and that's a big difference. T-Mobile calling their HSPA+ "4G" in an attempt to confuse consumers that their network was just as fast as Verizon and AT&T's 4G was – and is – sleazy at best.

T-Mobile's so-called 4G network isn't even close to the speeds of AT&T and Verizon's 4G LTE networks.

Could it get worse? These are carriers we are talking about, of course it can!

In retaliation to T-Mobile, AT&T choose to get down in the mud with their rival. AT&T is living out the expression "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!", and is now listing their HSPA+ network also as 4G technology...

If you had a 3G network iPhone 4S yesterday and woke up to discover you now had a new and improved 4G iPhone 4S, well, you don't. It's just the AT&T marketing team throwing a wrench into the works. 

So how can you tell if you truly have a 4G LTE Apple device on AT&T? Simple. Apple has never built an LTE iPhone, not even the 4S. Stand on your head, jump up and down, every iPhone ever made is a 3G HSPA+ device (or older and slower technology). Your iPhone 4S may say you are a 4G (LTE) device, but it's not. If you don't yet understand this, then I suggest you try the shampoo bottle approach. Rinse and re-read this all over again and see if something clicks.

The new iPad with retina display is a different story, as it has 4G LTE built-in (if you purchased a carrier ready model). When it says 4G, you may actually be running on a 4G LTE AT&T network. Then again, you may not, it may just say you are. Thankfully, AT&T delivers a map when deploying new networks. In fact, Verizon currently has well over 200 cities covered with 4G LTE. 

Hopefully you now understand that if you purchased an iPhone 4S, you've never had – and never will be – running on the AT&T 4G LTE network, no matter what it says on the screen. If you purchase (or purchased) a 4G iPad, and are living in some desolate place like Seattle, Denver, Miami, or that small town called Pittsburgh, then no, you don't have 4G LTE from AT&T, your iPad just says you do. Get it? (Verizon coverage map) when deploying new networks. In fact, Verizon currently has well over 200 cities covered with 4G LTE. 

Hopefully you now understand that if you purchased an iPhone 4S, you've never had – and never will be – running on the AT&T 4G LTE network, no matter what it says on the screen. If you purchase (or purchased) a 4G iPad, and are living in some desolate place like Seattle, Denver, Miami, or that small town called Pittsburgh, then no, you don't have 4G LTE from AT&T, your iPad just says you do. Get it?

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