The 4G iPhone 4S: Truth or Marketing?

So you’ve just received your new iPad on AT&T or Verizon and, if you’re in one of the covered cities, you’ve been checking e-mail, watching video, and browsing the web at blazing “4G” speeds for the past month.

iPhone 4S "4G" Signal

Realizing that you’ve now neglected your iPhone 4S like some sort of red headed stepchild (note: TMO loves red heads and does not recommend neglecting your children of whatever parenthood), you rush to update your phone to iOS 5.1 and jump for joy when, post-update, you see that wonderful “4G” indicator next to your signal strength. 

Excited, you toss your iPad to the floor with contempt and begin to browse the web on your magically-updated “4G” iPhone. But, after browsing for a minute or two, something seems off. “Wait a minute,” you think to yourself. “This isn’t nearly as fast as the iPad. In fact, it’s about the same speed as it was before.”  

No, AT&T iPhone 4S customers, Steve Jobs didn’t use his magic afterlife powers to upgrade your phone. The only change was AT&T, whose blatant abuse of the term “4G” for the past several years has finally caught up with Cupertino.

iPhone 4S Keynote

So Why The Change?

Prior to the iPhone 4S launch last October, it was rumored that the phone would include support for HSPA+ for the first time. Capable of theoretical speeds up to 21 megabits per second (up from 7.2 megabits per second on the HSPA found in the iPhone 4), the rumored inclusion of HSPA+ would provide faster connections for iPhone 4S users in the cities in which the technology is deployed.

When the 4S was announced, however, Apple’s Phil Schiller stated that the speed of the phone was rated at only 14.4 megabits per second. While the Apple community’s hopes were initially dashed by the lack of true 21 megabit per second HSPA+, the exact classification of the device was still in doubt.  

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a collaborative telecommunications group that sets standards for most carriers worldwide, has relaxed its definitions in recent years. According to Release 7 of the 3GPP’s standards guide, phones that provide maximum downlink speeds slower than 21 megabits per second can still be classified as HSPA+ and, therefore, the iPhone 4S is technically an HSPA+ device.

Real 4G vs Fake 4GImage via Shutterstock.

OK, So How Does Half-Hearted HSPA+ Become “4G”? 

The International Telecommunications Union, which sets the marketing standards for wireless networks, expanded their definition of 4G service in December 2010, technically allowing AT&T to label HSPA+ as “4G.” 

The problem is that consumers who hear “4G” expect something better. As it was originally intended and marketed, “4G” is best represented by a more advanced HSPA version, DC-HSPA+, with theoretical maximum speeds of 84 megabits per second, and the LTE networks that have been slowly rolling out on both AT&T and Verizon in recent months, capable of up to 73 megabits per second. These speeds are obviously a far cry from the iPhone 4S’s 14.4 megabits per second maximum downlink.

Even Apple made this distinction during their October 2011 keynote that launched the iPhone 4S. Speaking of the iPhone’s network capabilities, Phil Schiller said “This [non-LTE speed technologies] is what our competitors claim when they talk about 4G performance…we’re not going to get into a debate in the industry of what’s 4G and what isn’t. What’s most important, in real world performance, is that the iPhone 4S is just as fast [as competing ‘4G’ phones].”

What Does It All Mean?

With the 2012 iPad now LTE-capable and the launch of an LTE iPhone widely expected this year, customer confusion is ready to skyrocket. The fact remains, however, that despite AT&T’s choice to place a higher value on marketing than they do on keeping their customers informed, the iPhone 4S operating at “4G” 14.4 megabits per second is still noticeably faster in many cases than its predecessor. 

As Brian Klug over at AnandTech stated: “I don’t have issue with the status indicators showing H or H+ (for HSPA and HSPA+ when appropriate), but misleading indicators do nobody justice and just serve to reinforce these kinds of misconceptions.”