AT&T 4G on iPhone 4S – masters of deception

By : Sean Brown |March 08, 2012 |Cellular |9 Comments

Deception and perception, two things AT&T has a hard time differentiating between. Today’s update to iOS 5.1 adds to [borderline] deceptive marketing/customer service practices only “true” because of the telecommunications industry’s lack of perception and definition.  What does this mean to consumers?  A bunch of mis-labeled, technically “false” statements specifically directed towards confusing end-users into thinking they have a service they really don’t.

The Background of the Mobile Communications

In order not to get into a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo, I’m going to keep things simple as this article is targeting end-users, not IT/Telecommunications professionals.  Since the creation of mobile phone and cellular communications, there have been 5 major revisions of the way mobile communications happen.

Mobile Radio Telephone (Known as 0G) – The very first incarnation of wireless communications, developed in the early 70’s, was essentially a glorified two-way radio with push-to-talk capabilities.

1G – Introduced in the 80’s and was an analog service (yes, the original “Brick phones” were analog).

2G – Introduced in the early 90’s and was the first fully digital, encrypted mobile communications network which began to support wireless data .

3G – Introduced in the early 2000’s and incorporated faster transmission speeds.

4G – Introduced in the end of the 2000’s and standardized on the LTE platform in 2010.

Now without getting into a massive technical discussion here, each generation of mobile communications has taken steps to extend communications, increase speed/reliability and offer additional features.  Only recently has the consumer started to acknowledge what “3G” is, however they don’t understand what it means, what it does or doesn’t do.  Every manufacturer of  any RF-based device knows that once a technology/spectrum changes, so must the equipment  that talks to it.  Example: If you have a 2G phone and try to use it on a 4G network, it will not work – in fact, it wouldn’t even see the 4G network. Why?  Each generation of mobile communications uses different frequencies (RF spectrum) and different types of technology to communicate (GSM vs CDMA, etc).  In no way shape or form can a radio which is purposed for a specific frequency/mobile network be used on another frequency/network without replacing the radio inside of the device.

Deception and Perception

I am an avid hater of AT&T – this is my personal opinion and I [generally] keep to myself about it.  Today’s iOS update flooded my voicemail and inbox with people saying “I have 4G on my existing iPhone 4S”… Naturally I didn’t believe them, but once I saw it first hand, It sure did say “AT&T 4G”.  I have [literally] had this exact same conversation with dozens of people today, so I felt it warranted enough of my time to blog about it:

AT&T’s 4G service on the iPhone 4S is NOT 4G.  It is a marketing ploy to make you THINK that AT&T is really the biggest and the best (i’ll get into this  a little later).  Your iPhone 4S ONLY has a 3G (GSM/CDMA) capable radio inside of it, NOT a 4G/LTE radio.  It does *NOT* have two radios that work on both 3G/4G – It just doesn’t and never will.

What AT&T did, is deceptive.  If your phone is on their standard GSM network, it will show “3G”, if you happen to be able to connect to their HSPA+ network (technically, still a 3G network which theoretically can reach the speeds equivalent to 4g) your phone will show “4G”.  It is NOT LTE service, which by definition is “4G”.  Yes, HSPA+ does offer some additional speeds higher than standard 3G service, however it does not qualify as a fourth generation mobile network as it still uses the same radio technology in the third generation mobile networks, it just uses it more efficiently which produces faster speeds.

The perception of a [clearly] 3G ONLY iPhone4S showing “4G” is deception and should be viewed as false advertising.

Why would AT&T intentionally deceive?

AT&T’s board of directors made an excellent decision to lock Apple into an exclusive contract with them during the original release of the iPhone.  I can’t even begin to recall how many [hundreds, if not thousands of] TV commercials I watched featuring AT&T and how awesome they were because they were the only people who had the iPhone.  They spent millions of dollars into PR and marketing campaigns which touted their network as the best, meanwhile end-users were complaining of slow speeds, problems with activations and customer service nightmares.

In AT&T’s defense, they did put a lot of money into upgrading their network to support the iPhone, but missed the big picture of planning and evolving into the next generation of mobile communications.  Verizon and T-mobile put their time, effort and money into quietly building impressive 4th generation networks and kept non-stop forward momentum.

Once the exclusive agreement with AT&T ended, Apple began to sell the iPhone to any carrier who could afford it; Verizon immediately picked it up, and Sprint soon there after.  Around  the same time, Apple began to release details of a [planned] 4G iPhone, which would be LTE-based.  Verizon, T-Mobile and hand-full of smaller carrier had ample lead-time to build a fourth generation network in a strategic, well thought-out manner, mean-while leaving AT&T to rapidly deploy 4G-LTE in the biggest [normally most profitable] markets first.  AT&T’s need to be perceived as the “biggest and the best” is shadowed by mis-managed network operations and mediocre expansion, which they thought they could fix by buying T-Mobile, a company (who is aligned 3G/GSM wise for voice and 4G/LTE for enhanced voice/data) and instantly becoming owners of a nifty 4G/LTE network which would put AT&T close to where Verizon’s 4G/LTE builds are at.

Thankfully Department of Justice got this one right by blocking the sale/merger of AT&T/T-Mobile and keeping competition alive, thus leaving AT&T to scramble to find a way to roll out 4G to the masses to keep the perception that they still are the “biggest and best”.  While the sad fact is that users do not know the technical distinction between 3G/4G, today’s update to the AT&T iPhone 4S gives customers the perception that they are on 4G, but technically are not.

The truth is that AT&T is aimless wandering through the years doing what ever is in the best interest of their share holders, yes this is the RIGHT thing to do but at what cost?  They are technically “lying” to end users, claiming that their offering 4G service on a 3G-only device?

I invite you to share this link with EVERYONE you know, post it everywhere!

About Sean Brown

Sean Brown is a seasoned IT/Telecommunications professional working in the sector since the mid/late 90′s. Learn more about Sean by viewing his professional biography and Resume/CV.


  1. George Wagner Says: March 8, 2012 15:10 Reply

    While I am not a fan of AT&T, I would not put the blame on their shoulders. They are just using the definition that has not been adequately defined. The whole problem stems from the fact that 4G is NOT a standard, it is just referring to the “next” generation. It does NOT equate to LTE, that is just one of the new standards. So, since AT&T’s technology does fall above the previous network protocol, it is “their” next generation and qualifies as 4G (for AT&T). Unless 4G is defined as a standard, it is strictly a label. So, when talking about the carriers and the speeds, I always try to refer to LTE and GSM to avoid that confusion.

    That being said, I agree that it is poor customer service to change the indicator to 4G. It is a technique long used in marketing. Chysler had “Corinthian Leather,” remember?

  2. Simba7 Says: March 8, 2012 19:46 Reply

    4G Technology is technically LTE-Advanced. It’s marketing that made everything 4G.

  3. Steve P Says: March 9, 2012 02:12 Reply

    And AT&T isn’t the only company to regard HSPA+ service as “4G”.
    This article is just too biased to be taken seriously.

    • Sean Brown Says: March 9, 2012 09:58 Reply

      Except AT&T is the ONLY company who is deploying an update that misguides consumers into thinking they have 4G, when they technically don’t. Fact is that last week all HSPA+ connections showed “3G” this week they show “4G” yet nothing has changed in the phone or the network except the labeling of the network indicator…

  4. Matt Says: March 9, 2012 12:35 Reply

    If nothing has changed why can I files over 20MB but before I needed wifi to down load large files?

    • Sean Brown Says: March 9, 2012 12:43 Reply

      Because inside of the iOS release notes is clearly states that with iOS 5.1, over-the-air (OTA) update download sizes have been increased from 20mb to 50mb limit… I have a Verizon 3G iOS 5.1 phone and I’m able to download/update large files over 20mb too…

  5. Jim S Says: March 10, 2012 00:59 Reply

    Sean, As an employee of AT&T I wanted you to know that your characterization of my company caused me to ask the question, what in the heck did we do so poorly to disappoint you so much. If there was a way to understand that and fix it I know I, along with many of my fellow workers, do all that we could to bring a valuable experience to you.

    I am not sure what you are considering. While the standards have varied a bit over the years, “4g” is a bit in the eye of the beholder. AT&T was not the first (nor the only) network to brand their network 4g. Sprint began the “4G” confusion in early 2010 by branding their WiMax service 4G. tMobile was the first in the marketplace to lable their HSPA+ network “4G” based on the speeds they were able to get.

    Since the marketplace failed to challenge these labels, AT&T was caught in a dilemma, continue to uphold the rigorous standards of the ITU and allow competitors to create a false distinction or accept the market definition of 4G and compete. Obviously, they, after consulting the ITU and receiving a favorable ruling chose to go with the market based label.

    No one, not even AT&T, represents HSPA+ as LTE. However, the speeds obtained in the iPhone 4S, with it’s enhanced antennas and dual band capable radio technology do support significantly higher speeds that can approach 8 mb/s in real world experience.

    As I am typing this, I have an AT&T Laptop Connect modem. While this is a “3G” device, it can not match the data download performance of my iPhone 4S. In nearly simultaneous speedtests from my hotel room this evening, my “4G” iPhone achieved a download speed that was approximately 3X faster than my laptop connect card.

    So, I suggest, AT&T has correctly distinguished the enhanced performance by using the “4G” moniker.

    Finally, let me leave you with this. I know that I work hard every day to support customers in having the best experience I can as a person who proudly represents my company. I know I don’t always get it right, but I learn from my mistakes and constantly stive to improve. Based on what I know of my colleagues, I would say that my passion to satisfy customers in a way that would lead them to recommend us to others is shared by many here including our leadership.

    My question to you is, what specifically could we do to deliver excellent service and performance that would earn us a second consideration?

  6. Matt Says: March 20, 2012 11:28 Reply

    Well, without any bias, if you consider that my iPhone displays E instead of 3G if I am in rural areas of AT&T’s network, I simply consider this an indicator of what part of their network I am connected to, not the capability of my device.  Everyone who pays any attention to the technical specs of their device knows the 4s phones are 3G only.  Asking an everyday phone user to understand the technical aspects is obviously unrealistic, but expecting ANY business to accomodate ignorance is just that.

  7. Grkrican Says: March 25, 2012 16:00 Reply

    T–mobile’s 4G network is HSPA + as well. They are do not have an LTE netowrk

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