4G is one of those terms that keep coming back through marketing brochures for what the latest technologies happen to be in the cellphone market. Every carrier claims to have true 4G, and has been claiming that for years, regardless of what they actually use. The reason was simply because the real 4G specification, expected to be drafted by the International Telecommunication Union, was no where to be found. In fact, the ITU took way longer than expected to come up with a decision, likely because of massive lobbying campaigns. After all, which company wants to have to redesign its entire network just to be able to keep saying they are 4G? Now however, the ITU has decided itself. What does this mean for carriers and users?
First, let’s see what 4G really is. As expected, LTE is central to the ITU strategy, but more precisely, the organization went with LTE-Advanced, which is a stricter version of traditional LTE. To qualify as 4G, a network has to provide 100 Mbps connections over wireless, and 1 Gbps over wired. The whole network has to be fully IPv6 compliant. Frequencies have to be scalable over 40 MHz to avoid interference. Finally, global roaming has to be seamless, along with transitions between wireless and wired connections. This is a real step forward, and a good decision, which ensures that real 4G services will meet a good level of service. Technically, LTE-Advanced is just one of two new standard that are now under the umbrella called IMT-Advanced. The other one is WiMAX 2 which is a further refinement of the WiMAX protocol.
So, now that we know the technical details behind what 4G finally is, what does this mean for current providers? Will you keep being able to go to a store and buy a 4G phone? The answer, like many other things, is complicated. The problem right now is that a lot of different technologies are referred to as 4G, including things like HSPA+, which is really more like an advanced 3G version. Now, if companies want to comply, then very few can say they are currently offering true 4G. In Europe and Asia, support is much more accelerated than in the US, where spectrum is still an issue. To provide true 4G, the networks need enough frequency spectrum to do it, and right now that’s a major concern. But again, there’s no penalty for not listening to the ITU. It may be seen as deceptive practices, but all providers are at least working on moving to 4G, so it’s more like a half-lie. So the bottom line? It’s unlikely that any current cellphone provider will stop calling their network 4G.
And what about 5G? Some people wondered if the ITU wouldn’t just bypass the whole 4G deal, since it’s already so misused and called the IMT-Advanced technologies as 5G, but that just wasn’t possible. Each generation is around 10 years in the making, and what will end up being 5G is still many years away, so we won’t even have a hint of what it might be for a long time still.