Sunday, April 03, 2011

My G is Faster Than Your G!

The battle wages on. On TV, in newspapers and magazines, and on bill boards on the interstate you can’t miss the ads touting 4G networks. If you believe all the claims by now you must feel that if you don’t have a 4G phone you are really missing out. What you are missing other than the letter at falls between “F” and “H” in our alphabet is less than clear. It might be interesting to know that the companies that tout the 4G networks really don’t know much more than you do.

Some history will help explain what all these “Gs” really mean. Back in the dark ages of mobile phones when the smallest of the available devices was briefcase-size, they used a network dubbed “1G.” The “G” stands for generation and this mobile phone network technology was the first generation. It was developed in the early 1980s and was fine for the analog devices in service at that time. It did require phones with protruding antennas.

The 1G networks were soon replaced by 2G, the first of the digital networks. With the number of mobile phone users exploding in the USA and around the world, the old analog system just could not handle the traffic. 2G systems could accommodate 50 or more simultaneous conversations on the same frequency and allowed for smaller phones with built in antennas. It was not, however, capable of efficiently handling data.

As more and more people wanted to be able to be connected while on the go, not only with voice but with email, the web, navigation services, and now social networking, the carriers like Verizon and AT&T needed a revolutionary upgrade and that resulted in the 3G network.

This brings us to the present and the 4G networks being touted by these same big carriers. The official definition of the capacities of the all the “Gs” is set by The International Telecommunication Union, the global wireless standards-setting organization. They have determined that 4G networks must be capable of download speeds of 100 megabits per second. In reality none of the carriers are achieving anything close to this speed. In most cases they provide speeds less than 50% of real 4G. For sure they have fast networks, but no cigar, no 4G.

Not to be deterred, the marketing gurus from many of carriers seem to have decided to collectively ignore the official definition and develop their own. Perhaps this is not a big issue when you are talking about bits and bytes. I do wonder what would happen if this trend carried over to BP or Shell. Could a gallon of gas be redefined by the gasoline companies as 14 ounces?

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