The Temptation of Generation Inflation

Operators Begin Marketing 4G as 5G

5G_lGet ready for another generation gap.

The countdown to 5G mobile services is years away, but the term is already scattered across some operators’ Web sites. This is more than a technical nuance. The term “5G” could become meaningless much faster than “4G” did a few years ago.

Anticipation for the roll-out of 4G services in some markets was diluted as a result of inaccurate network labelling. Some operators promised blazing fast “4G speeds” on their HSPA+ networks to prevent subscriber churn — marketing 3G technologies like HSPA as a 4G service was a fairly widespread practice in many countries. However, not even LTE met the original technical 4G service requirements defined by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It was the extensive marketing of LTE as 4G that convinced the ITU to align its requirements to the market semantics. It was backwards.

LTE was originally intended to be a family of 3G services, and LTE Advanced (LTE-A) was to be the start of true 4G. However, it’s being sold to the market by some operators as 5G.

Smart Communications, the largest mobile operator in the Philippines, announced last week that it’s gone live with 5G services in the country. The company’s press release explains that it’s now offering LTE-A services with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, or “more than twice as fast as 4G services”. Smart Communications says that LTE-A is referred to as 5G by leading global operators. Searches on some major operator Web sites don’t always back that up, but there’s definitely a great deal of confusion in the media about the terminology. Specifics of 5G services have not been defined yet and the standards are likely to be a decade away from completion, but consumers will be overloaded by the hype as more LTE-A networks go live.


Hardware suppliers have also jumped the gun by labelling any access faster than 1 gigabit per second as 5G. There’s no monopoly on the use of the term — from a marketing perspective, numbers are cleaner than industry acronyms. However, the clearest and fairest message would be the actual access speeds.

The lack of formal definitions and rules make it tempting for operators and hardware makers to embellish network upgrades with bigger numbers than might be technically accurate. It’s a reasonable marketing strategy in the short run, but will lead to confusion over time.