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The next big thing for wireless carriers: “4G” and related buzz-acronyms like “LTE.” It’s the fourth-generation cellular network and it universally promises more reliable service, faster data downloads and, on occasion, magic.
But as to what actually constitutes 4G service, there’s little consensus, to the point that we’ve advised readers to look carefully at what a company is actually offering and branding “4G.” We’ve heard that AT&T, for example, is considering HSPA+ technology for data transfer part of its 4G service. HSPA is slightly faster than 3G but not nearly as fast as Verizon’s 4G LTE service, and it’s not really new. The iPhone 4, for example, could handle HSPA with its current internal hardware, it just doesn’t.
Now one lawmaker wants to eliminate the confusion by introducing a bill that would set minimum standards for what can be considered 4G service, according to a story from Ars Technica. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s bill, dubbed the “Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act,” would require anybody claiming to sell 4G service to make certain information available to customers.
That information includes several items. First, carriers would have to disclose a “guaranteed minimum speed” for Internet data transfer. The “guaranteed” part is the important one – the carrier couldn’t claim a guaranteed speed unless that data speed was available for a certain amount of time per calendar year. The Federal Communication Commission checks the guarantee and polices the whole set of rules.
The FCC wants more
Next, the FCC would issue a “reliability rating” for the service that customers would be allowed to see, based on a set of standards the commission would create. According to the Ars story, “It would be based on ‘data session start success percentage (network accessibility)’ and the ‘data session completion success percentage (network retainability)’ of the plan.”
The law would make sure customers were informed of exactly what prices they would be paying for data usage, be it determined by the volume of data they use, or at a flat rate. In the case of a flat-rate data plan, the provider would need to make clear any limits or exclusions for data usage that could cost customers more, or limit the data available to them. And finally, network providers need to explain any and all “data throttling,” where the company slows or limits the flow of data to users. The FCC has said data throttling can be allowed in order to do things like maintain and safeguard the network, but that telecom companies have to be open and honest about throttling when they do it.
The bill also throws in a provision for a coverage map to be made available to users, and also to explain what kind of 4G coverage – LTE or WiMAX – is being provided. The FCC gets 180 days to come up with the rules and guidelines outlined in the bill, should it be approved by Congress and signed by President Obama, but that’s a long way out from now. The bill is currently being reviewed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.