4G

There's been a lot of concern raised recently about Apple's use of the term "4G" to describe the cellular connectivity in the new iPad. There seems to be some confusion. I decided I'd try to make sense of it.

In the past, Apple has always been very careful when discussing the data connectivity in its products. For example, during the introduction of the iPhone 4S, Phil Schiller specifically mentioned HSDPA and 4G:

If you follow the phone industry, these numbers might sound familiar: 5.8Mbps up, 14.4Mbps down. Where have I heard that before? Well, this is what the majority of our competitors claim when they're talking about 4G performance.

The Motorola Atrix 4G, the LG Thrill 4G, the HTC Inspire 4G - they even put it in their names. We're not going to get into a debate in the industry of what's 4G and what isn't, that's for others to talk about. What's most important, when it comes to real world performance, is that the iPhone 4S is just as fast as all these phones.

The introduction of the third generation iPad was the first time Apple claimed one of its products had 4G capabilities. It seems that Apple's definition of what classifies as 4G is support for LTE. From the iPad 4G page on Apple.com:

The new iPad supports fast cellular networks around the world — including 4G LTE networks in the U.S. and Canada. So you can download content, stream video, and browse the web at amazing speeds. And if you’re in a location without a 4G LTE network, you’ll still get access to fast 3G networks including HSPA, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA.

Most of the time Apple mentions the connectivity in the new iPad, they refer to it as "4G LTE". Even Apple's own data connectivity icon contains this phrase. This suggests Apple considers LTE to be "4G". Apple never mentioned 4G when introducting the iPhone 4S, even though competitors who were using similar technology in their phones at the same time flouted it. This suggests Apple doesn't consider HSPA, HSDPA/HSUPA, HSPA+, or DC-HSDPA to be "4G".

Why is this the case?

What Is 4G?

The maximum downlink speed for the fastest network which the iPad 2 and iPhone 4 can run on, HSDPA, is 7.2Mbps.

The maximum downlink speed for the fastest network which the iPhone 4S can run on, HSPA+, is 14.4Mbps.

The maximum downlink speed for the fastest network which the new iPad can run on, LTE, is 73Mbps.

This was clearly explained and demonstrated in Apple's keynote in March.

From Wikipedia's 4G page:

In March 2008, the International Telecommunications Union-Radio communications sector (ITU-R) specified a set of requirements for 4G standards, named the IMT-Advanced (International Mobile Telecommunications Advanced) specification, setting peak speed requirements for 4G service at 100 megabits per second (Mbit/s) for high mobility communication (such as from trains and cars) and 1 gigabit per second (Gbit/s) for low mobility communication (such as pedestrians and stationary users).

Since the above mentioned first-release versions of Mobile WiMAX and LTE support much less than 1 Gbit/s peak bit rate, they are not fully IMT-Advanced compliant, but are often branded 4G by service providers. On December 6, 2010, ITU-R recognized that these two technologies, as well as other beyond-3G technologies that do not fulfill the IMT-Advanced requirements, could nevertheless be considered "4G", provided they represent forerunners to IMT-Advanced compliant versions and "a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed".

This last sentence is key. Apple clearly believes that HSPA+, the fastest cellular network technology in the iPhone 4S, does not provide a "substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed", therefore rendering it not a 4G technology. This is a fair call on Apple's part, as the improved performance between the 7.2Mbps and 14.4Mbps downlink of the iPhone 4/iPad 2 and iPhone 4S respectively doesn't seem like an overly "substantial level of improvement", however the improved performance between the 14.4Mbps and 73Mbps downlink of the iPhone 4S and new iPad seems extremely substantial.

The controversy being brought up with regards to Apple's use of 4G branding in countries outside the US is now somewhat clearer. We now know what Apple considers 4G and what Apple does not consider 4G. And we know why.

The Rest Of The World

I live in the UK. We don't have any 4G LTE coverage here. At least not yet. The new iPad is still marketed on Apple's UK site as supporting 4G, even though there are no 4G networks here. Apple is making no false claims: make no mistake, the new iPad supports 4G. Why should Apple hide this fact, just because no UK carriers support 4G?

The wording on the UK iPad's data connectivity page is extremely careful and clear. The phrase "LTE" appears once: here. This is not misleading at all.

In Australia, three carriers officially support the new iPad: Optus, Telstra and Vodafone. Out of these three carriers, one claims to support 4G LTE - Telstra. The problem Apple faces here is that Telstra's 4G LTE coverage is on a different frequency to the supported 4G frequencies of the third generation iPad. The iPad supports LTE frequencies of 700MHz and 2100MHz. In Australia, only the 1800MHz LTE frequency is supported by Telstra. This means that even if you buy a 4G iPad in Australia, and subscribe to Telstra's LTE service, you will only receive DC-HSDPA speeds.

This is unfortunate, and a limit of technology. But Apple is not trying to make any false claims. In fact, Apple is extremely clear on the iPad's 4G page that 4G LTE is only supported in specific countries:

4G LTE is supported only on AT&T and Verizon networks in the U.S. and on Bell, Rogers, and Telus networks in Canada. Data plans sold separately. See your carrier for details.

iPhone 4S on AT&T - The Odd One Out

Unfortunately, the state of 4G throughout Apple devices isn't quite that simple. That's a screenshot of an iPhone 4S. It clearly shows "4G" in the menu bar. But we've determined already that Apple doesn't consider HSPA+, the fastest data connection which the iPhone 4S supports, to be 4G. The term "4G" doesn't appear once on Apple's iPhone 4S website.

So why does 4G appear in the menu bar?

Well, it turns out that AT&T know HSPA+ isn't 4G, but they're trying to push it anyway. My guess is that AT&T forced Apple to allow them to display that 4G menu bar item. 4G LTE coverage is being heavily promoted by Verizon - that must make AT&T want to retaliate somehow.

Here's a screenshot of the data downlink on a new iPad, with Verizon 4G LTE coverage. Doesn't quite match AT&T's fake 4G, does it?

What Have We Learned?

Wireless networking is a crazy world. Different carriers, different frequencies, different standards. It's a big, hairy mess. Apple has tailored every country's iPad 4G page to show the carriers which support the iPad in that country and has clearly stated which countries and carriers support 4G LTE.

In Australia, because of the confusion, Apple is offering free refunds, no questions asked.

If anything, what we can draw from this whole charade is that Apple is honest and open to customers and willing to go beyond the call of duty to ensure every buyer is satisfied and happy. What more could we ask?

On the other hand some carriers seem happy to be sneaky and push confusion onto customers by bending the truth. I'm glad I'm in the UK where this 4G stuff isn't a problem, but if I were in the US, I'd be on Verizon. Their support rocks.