Recently an AT&T commercial regarding Apple’s iPhone 4S caught my eye, not just because the carrier’s new iPhone 4S marketing blitz is surely designed to lock as many unsuspecting Apple lovers into long term contracts before the next iteration iPhone 5 is released in June, but because it deceptively advertised the iPhone 4S as a 4G phone.
The ads themselves boast that the iPhone 4S can achieve download speeds up to 3 times faster than competitors because it operates on AT&T’s 4G network, but here’s the rub, the iPhone 4S is not a 4G device.
While the iPhone 4S on AT&T’s network may achieve faster speeds than the same phone on rivals Sprint or Verizon, don’t be fooled by this marketing two step, AT&T is purposely trying to confuse the consumer into thinking the iPhone 4S is more advanced than it really is. Deceptive? Yes. Illegal? Unfortunately no.
This whole situation is part of the longstanding issue the tech world has had with wireless network jargon, particularly the definition of words like “4G.” With the push towards LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks, companies have started to call this new advanced service 4G, because it truly offers the next generation of wireless networks. But between our LTE future and our 3G past lies a different class of mobile network, HSPA+, which companies on both sides of the border utilize as an upgrade on traditional 3G service, a 3G+ network in you will.
In regards to AT&T, the wireless giant offers both HSPA+ and LTE, the latter offering the blazingly fast speeds we’ve now come to associate with any sort of reliable definition of “4G.” The company’s iPhone 4S, however, does not run on this LTE network, but instead runs on the company’s slower HSPA+ network, meaning that the claim the company’s iPhone runs three times faster than the same device on a competitors network is true, but calling the iPhone a 4G device is not.
But is AT&T’s claim that the iPhone 4S is 4G deceptive in a legal sense? While it’s certainly misleading, it’s not illegal strictly speaking, since really “4G” is simply a marketing term with no real basis in reality. To this point the tech world has generally labelled advanced LTE and WiMax networks as 4G because they have actually changed the way networks utilize spectrum, whereas HSPA+ merely offers a faster traditional network.
That being said, even advanced LTE and WiMax networks fall considerably short of the official definition established by the International Telecommunications Union, a global telecom standards body within the UN. According to ITU standards, for technology to be considered “4G” it must “deliver downlink speeds of 1Gbps when stationary and 100Mbps when mobile.” So far nothing has come close.
Of course, last year when 4G was first unveiled, writers here covered the fact that companies simply ignored such standards, adopting 4G as simply the marketing term for network speeds faster than 3G.
So why the deceptive advertising? We’ve seen this sort of thing from AT&T before, a marketing push for the most recent iteration of the iPhone preceding the inevitable release of the next one, a simple cash grab that preys on consumer naivety.