NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As more U.S. carriers hop on the 4G bandwagon, the definition of 4G becomes less and less clear. At this point, only two things are certain. One: Major carriers are using it as a marketing catchall term for faster service. And two: It's already leading to smack-talk and competitive ads reminiscent of the AT&T -Verizon map wars of 2009.
AT&T was the latest carrier to jump into the 4G fray at the Consumer Electronics Show -- it's adding the faster mobile internet moniker after rivals Verizon , Sprint and T-Mobile have thrown down the gauntlet.
But with no set standard, what does 4G actually mean?
"It's a marketing name for three different technologies," said Tole Hart, senior analyst on mobile services for the Yankee Group.
Each carrier has its own network technology and coverage areas, so it's been reduced (or expanded) to mean faster, fourth-generation mobile internet for speedy downloads and smooth streaming video -- even if the carrier is actually using really, really fast 3G (as AT&T and T-Mobile are doing).
The question, though, is with every major carrier claiming 4G coverage despite varied technology and coverage areas, can consumers discern the difference? "People are discovering quickly that all 4G is not created equal," said Lowell McAdam, Verizon Communications chief operations officer, during the company's keynote at CES.
"There is no set standard that everybody is following; [4G] is just a meaningless term," said telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan. "Some carriers are rolling out faster networks than others."
When it comes to the technology that's responsible for mobile internet speeds, marketers are admittedly confronted with complicated alphabet soup. AT&T and T-Mobile have HSPA-plus infrastructure that's considered slower than the Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology Verizon supports. Sprint was the first U.S. carrier to launch 4G with yet another technology, WiMAX.
That's where the ads come in.
Sprint launched 4G with the "first" 4G phone in the U.S. with its agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and T-Mobile is now claiming to be the "largest" 4G network in ads from Publicis, Seattle. Even so, 4G doesn't yet mean much to consumers. Only one in four U.S. consumers actually know what 4G is, according to a 2010 Yankee Group survey, despite carriers' laser-focus on the label.
When T-Mobile launched 4G in 2010, AT&T was highly critical of T-Mobile calling the technology they share 4G: "I think that companies need to be careful that they're not misleading customers by labeling HSPA-plus as a 4G technology," AT&T Mobility spokesman Seth Bloom told industry trade "Fierce Wireless." AT&T now says it considers its HSPA-plus network 4G because it also has "backhaul" -- what a spokeswoman calls an extra lane on the highway. AT&T also plans to roll out LTE this summer, so it'll have two types of technology under the 4G banner.
T-Mobile is OK with using 4G because it "offers substantial improvement over 3G and is comparable to competing 4G networks," said a spokeswoman in a statement.
In the 4G fight, T-Mobile has also lashed out at AT&T in ads. T-Mobile launched the 4G MyTouch handset with an ad taking a direct shot at the carrier's often criticized iPhone service. In the spot "Piggyback," a spoof of Apple 's Mac versus PC ads, a pretty lady representing MyTouch talks to iPhone, which is a man hauling another man -- representing the 3G network -- on his back.
Verizon has taken a different tack all together -- it has branded the network "4G LTE," adding in the name of its technology to highlight its difference from the others. Verizon 4G spots from McGarryBowen feature speedy imagery like running and lightning bolts with the closer: "Lightning fast, lightning strong ... the most advanced 4G service in the world."
And all that's before AT&T has had a turn. The carrier declined to announce marketing plans for 4G, but if it follows its formula for past major launches, 4G will likely to get an ad blitz -- the No. 3 U.S. ad spender has supported launches like the first touch-screen BlackBerry Torch and its new tagline "Rethink Possible" with big campaigns.
So far, the carrier has launched a 4G section on its website, run a billboard in Las Vegas touting 4G during CES, and nixed 3G from its commercials from BBDO . The closing "the nation's fastest 3G network" we've seen in past spots has changed to "fastest mobile broadband network" in recent ads.
"I think misleading consumers is where we're going," said Mr. Kagan. "This is very dangerous. [Carriers] are rushing with the marketing and really risk blowing reputations with customers. Eventually they are going to realize that this 4G is not what customers are expecting."
If that's the case, could the carriers face false ad claims? To date, the definitions for 4G are murky. The industry standards organization, International Telecommunications Union, hasn't yet set rules for 4G, though it recently broadened determinations for the distinction in December to include "evolved 3G technologies."
Who has what?
A look at what exactly the carriers are offering.
- 4G TECHNOLOGY: LTE
- 4G CLAIM: "4G LTE... the most advanced 4G network in the world"
- ADS: A running farm boy opens a package and releases lightning bolts.
- AGENCY: McGarryBowen
- 4G TECHNOLOGY: HSPA+, adding LTE in summer
- 4G CLAIM: "AT&T is getting faster with 4G." ADS: Nothing yet, other than a section on its website and billboards at CES.
- AGENCY: BBDO
- 4G TECHNOLOGY: WiMax
- 4G CLAIM: "It's more than a wireless network, it's a wireless revolution."
- ADS: Sprint launched the first 4G phone with "Firsts" featuring dominos of technological firsts from the wheel to the space shuttle.
- AGENCY: Goodby , Silverstein & Partners
- 4G TECHNOLOGY: HSPA+ 4G CLAIM: "America's Largest 4G Network"
- ADS: T-Mobile spoofs Apple 's Mac vs PC commercials to attack AT&T 's 3G service for iPhone.
- AGENCY: Publicis, Seattle