4G or “4G”?
Outside of the United States Apple has been making headlines that aren’t exactly positive and it’s all surrounding how the company has chosen to advertise the new iPad. As is common knowledge these days Apple took the bold step to include LTE connectivity in its latest iPad model as one of the major features. Ahead of the iPad release I shot down the chances of Apple including LTE, stating primarily a lack of international adoption as a key reason for Apple to wait a year. I later relented and suspected it was inevitable.
However, LTE in the iPad is seemingly causing Apple more headaches than they would have envisaged and since before the iPad was even announced has been a point of frustration for myself and many others. This breaks into two simple ideas, the first idea being that LTE actually constitutes as true 4G connectivity and second the reason as to why Apple hobbled the iPad internationally?
When the slide advertising 4G LTE connectivity appeared at the iPad 3 launch in March my jaw hit the desk. I was expecting the feature so that came as little surprise but Apple’s insistence on calling it 4G baffled me, I naturally and wrongly assumed that Apple would take the higher moral ground over the carriers. It does appear that the carriers now have had one over on everyone.
From here it gets a bit complex with plenty of acronyms to boot, and before we dive right in let’s just clarify exactly what kind of 4G is included in the iPad. Unfortunately Apple offers no insight on its website but as we know that the new iPad packs a Qualcomm MDM9600 we can decipher what kind of connectivity is on offer. The MDM9600 brings to the table support for UE Category 3 LTE, CDMA2000 1x/EVDO Rev. A and B as well as all the 3G connectivity to allow it to roam internationally but notably packs DC-HSDPA+ and HSPA+ for up to 42 Mbps download speeds. All this tells us is that the chip supports LTE with a maximum downlink of 100Mbps and uplink of 50Mbps.
Unfortunately it’s more complicated than this, we can however refer to the definitions given by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as to what is and isn’t 4G. This is more complicated than it should be too as the ITU have moved the goal posts on the definition, a move I would say is to suit the carriers.
In October 2010 the ITU completed a long assessment of what did and didn’t qualify as being included in the ITM-Advanced standard (4G to me and you). At the time the ITU ruled that the only 4G technologies would be LTE-Advanced and WirelessMan-Advanced, not that this ruling stopped providers like Clear, with their WiMax product, advertising services as 4G.
The criteria the ITU set for a technology to be true 4G in October 2010 was a 100Mbps downstream for high mobility (fast moving vehicles) and 1Gbps for low mobility (walking or slow moving vehicles).
It didn’t take long for the ITU to move the goalposts though. After T-Mobile was allowed to advertise it’s 100% 3G HSPA+ network as a 4G network a very discrete change made its way into the ITU specifications. The press release from early December 2010 is still online for reading, here’s the good bit:
Following a detailed evaluation against stringent technical and operational criteria, ITU has determined that “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” should be accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced. As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G”, although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed. The detailed specifications of the IMT-Advanced technologies will be provided in a new ITU-R Recommendation expected in early 2012.
This obviously opened the doors to all sorts of technologies being considered “4G” including LTE as we know it today, HSPA+ and WiMax. None of which can get anywhere near the original ITM-Advanced specification of 100Mbps downstream for high mobility and 1Gbps for low mobility.
In December 2010 Philip Solis at ABI Research wrote a blog post about the change, it remains poignant today.
It has now passed “early 2012″ and the ITU, an organisation closely associated with the UN, has yet to release a more solid definition of 4G so we’re stuck with a specification that none of the currently named 4G technologies adhere to and of course giving free reign to carriers who have begun widespread labelling of 3G services as 4G. That said the FCC and similar authorities in other countries seem to have no legal jurisdiction over the terms 2G, 3G or 4G.
Apple is just as guilty of this as anyone else and is of course just bending to the will of the carriers, probably most notable is the recent iOS 5.1 update which began showing 4G symbols on iPhones that were connected to HSPA+ 3G networks, even when the speed of said network was potentially abysmal.
Apple’s iPad is causing another kind of 4G related controversy, a controversy which is firmly outside of the USA. It started with and has been most publicised in Australia where the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took issue with Apple using the term ‘WiFi + 4G’ to describe the iPads being sold in Australia. There are LTE “4G” services available in Australia but they’re not compatible with the iPad due to the frequency band that Australia’s networks run on.
In this particular case Apple was initially resistant to the pressure but has since relented, if you look at the Australian online Apple store whilst the iPad is still advertised as being a ‘WiFi + 4G’ (which I suppose it technically is) the accompanying text reads “not compatible with current Australian 4G LTE networks and WiMAX networks.” On the actual product page itself it’s difficult to find any mention of 4G at all.
Now the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has begun looking into the branding of the iPad in the UK. The ASA has received a number of complaints regarding the branding and has in the past instructed Apple to clarify that the iPad is not compatible with (currently non-existent) 4G networks. According to the BBC Apple advised the ASA that “no further reference to the 4G capabilities of the iPad will be made on their UK website”. Yet the UK website is still plastered in references to the 4G capabilities of the iPad with no clarification on whether it’ll work or not.
We know Apple is stubborn, not only in getting its own way but in the consistency of its marketing material worldwide. There are a number of baffling points here though, why would Apple only release an iPad with LTE capable of working on the 700Mhz band which is only used in North America? And then why on the full knowledge that the new iPad has 4G that doesn’t work in the likes of Australia and Europe did it insist on advertising so?
Even in the US this whole LTE thing is a bit of a debacle, AT&T operate what’s called a Class 17 700MHz network which primarily operates in the 704MHz to 787MHz range where as Verizon runs a Class 13 700MHz LTE network operating between 764MHz and 787MHz. Which not only means Apple has to make two different kinds of iPad but that consumers need to make a choice when purchasing.
In Europe and the UK it looks likely that the 800MHz band will be used for LTE across the board, which is not at all compatible with the current generation iPad. In Australia where LTE rollout is making good progress the band used is 1800MHz—also not compatible with the current iPad.
It’d be wishful thinking to expect Apple to revise the iPad for emerging LTE networks outside of North America, for that we’ll have to wait another year. For now Apple should remove references to the iPad being 4G compatible but that brings us right back to what exactly does “4G” mean?
In the future it’s unlikely that the landscape will brighten at all. Next year Apple will almost certainly begin to make use of Qualcomm’s new 28nm chips for greater power efficiency and we can expect an expansion upon the bands supported and therefore an expansion of the networks supported around the world, that’s not to say that Apple might have to make a number of models for use in different areas of the world.
Even further, some 3-7 years we can expect the move towards LTE-Advanced to take place. In its current form LTE-Advanced is a true 4G technology capable of very high speeds even to fast moving vehicles. Whether we’ll see a worldwide unification of standards and a concerted push towards adoption; I wouldn’t hold my breath.