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4G or 'faux G', it's a mealy-mouthed marketing mishmash

Verizon goes all-IP, AT&T hedges bets

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If you find yourself a bit unsure as to exactly what marketeers mean when they use the term "4G", you're not alone – telecom and research execs are equally unhappy with the fog surrounding that term.

"I'm not sure there is an exact definition," Mike Nielsen, Ciena's VP for Carrier Ethernet and Switching Solutions told The Reg when we asked for help defining 4G at a "Broadcom Brainstorming" event on Monday in downtown San Francisco.

To Nielsen, the term is broad enough to cover WiMAX, LTE, and other technologies. But seeing as how Ciena is a telco- and enterprise-level networking provider, he doesn't instinctively look at 4G from a user's perspective. "Pragmatically, for me," he said, "it's more when you're talking about hundreds of megabits to gigabits coming out of the cell tower."

Michael Howard, cofounder and principal analyst at Infonetics Research, noted that there is a 4G standard – presumably referring to the International Telecommunications Union's IMT-Advanced – but that hasn't stopped marketeers from muddying the waters. The confusion is enough to have caused his research group to use two definitions in their writings: "marketing 4G" and "standards 4G".

"LTE isn't even 4G. LTE Advanced is 4G," he said.

"Sprint started this marketing game of calling it 4G. The truth is, though, if you look at LTE bandwidths, you look at 4G bandwidths, and the HSPA+ bandwidths, they're the same," he said.

This usurpation of the term 4G for marketing purposes, Howard said, is not a worldwide problem, but a North American problem, thanks to Sprint.

Edward Doe, the product line director, of Broadcom's Network Switch Infrastructure and Networking Group, had another take on what he called "faux G" – that it's had a positive effect. "It's forced people to go to all IP," he said, speaking of telecom infrastructure.

"3G, and two-and-a-half G, and three-and-a-half G – all allowed for keeping the TDM backhaul," he said, referring to the Time Division Multiplexing system used in circuit-switched networks such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

But with the advent of 4G – or, for that matter faux G – telecoms are deciding that it's time to move beyond that legacy system, Doe said, and move to packet-switched IP backhauls. "It's really going to create a little bit of a waterfall, or a tidal wave, or a tsunami kind of effect on the backhaul," he said, quickly ratcheting up his liquid metaphor to describe the infrastructure upgrade effort and expense that telecoms face.

Howard noted that recent spending on backhaul equipment reflects that effort. "In the last three years the spending on backhaul equipment worldwide has moved from 80 per cent to 88 per cent, and this year to 91 per cent on IP Ethernet backhaul equipment," he said.

Although some of that spending is on microwave equipment upon which you can run TDM and Ethernet at the same time, the trend is clear. Verizon, for example, is moving totally to an IP backhaul. AT&T, and the other hand, is going with a hybrid system, with voice and data running over a packet-based system, but with a TDM system running in parallel to handle such matters as packet timing.

"Since they own a bunch of them," Howard said," they're just going to keep their T1s, do the timing there, and then do the packets." According to Howard, AT&T doesn't know how long this hybrid arrangement will hold up, but they're estimating "somewhere around 2015, 16, 17."

By then, we may all have settled on exactly what 4G means. ®

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