Rogers LTE and 4G: Beyond Sales Puffery?


In July 2011, Rogers announced the launch of its Long Term Evolution (LTE) network providing the Ottawa-area with access to the fastest wireless internet in Canada, eclipsing the performance of their competitors’ HSPA+ networks. Although estimates vary significantly, Rob Bruce (President of Rogers’ communications division), pegged the new network at four to five times faster than existing networks in an interview quoted by The Globe and Mail’s Iain Marlow.[1] However, the launch of their new network has presented a marketing problem for Rogers since they had already followed the lead of their rivals in labelling their HSPA+ network as a ‘4G’ (fourth-generation) network. In order to “differentiate” their new LTE service, Rogers has opted to market it as “Beyond 4G” in their web advertising and on their website although their LTE network is incapable of reaching speeds ‘beyond’ the upper limits of what can be considered ‘4G’ (speeds which are currently only being reached in laboratory-settings).

The Watering Down of 4G:
Up until December 2010, the 4G standard had been reserved for networks that provided a theoretical maximum download speed of 1 Gbit/s.[2] However, the UN-mandated standards body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), was forced to announce that it would be loosening the definition of 4G because of the global trend amongst wireless providers, especially in the United States, to label their ‘enhanced 3G’ (HSPA+) and predecessors of IMT-Advanced networks including WiMAX and first-release LTE as “4G networks”. The ITU’s hand was forced in this regard in order “[t]o remain relevant”, argued PCMag’s Sascha Segan at the time.[3] Following this announcement, 4G networks as defined by the ITU would include not only IMT-Advanced technologies (capable of 1Gbit/s theoretical max download speeds), but also “the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.”[4] This watering down of the 4G standard to include a wider range of wireless technologies also necessarily expanded the range of performances that would qualify for the 4G label thus making it much more difficult for consumers to make an informed decision on their wireless provider/hardware.

The 4G ‘Name Game’ Comes to Canada:
While this announcement effectively ended the public debate in the United States over which companies actually offered 4G networks to their customers, it has resulted in a new round of jockeying in the Canadian wireless market. In February 2011, Telus announced that it would now be marketing its HSPA+ network as a 4G network which it justified in part by doubling the theoretical maximum download speed of its network to 42 Mb/s (in select Canadian cities) by enabling the use of Dual Cell Technology.[5] Bell followed suit in March 2011 by announcing that it would also be marketing its HSPA+ as a 4G network in accordance with the ITU’s altered requirements as it similarly doubled the theoretical capabilities of its HSPA+ network in select Canadian cities.[6] While both of these moves were in accordance with the ITU’s new guidelines, tech enthusiasts cringed as the ‘3G+’ and ‘3.5G’labels, felt to be more honest, were retired by Canada’s wireless providers.

In a blog post entitled, “Our take on 4G and LTE”, Rogers spokesperson Keith McArthur addressed the issues surrounding the marketing of HSPA+/LTE saying that Rogers had tried to “stay out of the name game” but that it had its hand forced by its competitors.[7] “While we initially thought we wouldn’t need to follow suit, we will begin referring to our HSPA+ network as 4G over the next few days,” wrote McArthur in April 2011, “This change will provide consistency for our customers and also aligns with the most recent definition of 4G from the International Telecommunications Union.”[8]

While certainly within their rights to begin marketing HSPA+ as a 4G network, Rogers took it a step further by announcing that it would be branding its soon-to-be-released LTE as “beyond 4G” even though the ITU classified the technology as a 4G network and considered it no differently than its predecessor HSPA+. When challenged upon this assertion that their LTE was somehow ‘beyond’ a 4G network, Rogers spokesperson Elise Ondet responded by saying that what Rogers marketing “mostly talks about is LTE”.[9]

After further prodding, Rogers spokesperson Chris Clarke added that Rogers “only say[s] ‘beyond 4G’ to differentiate [them]selves from other HSPA+ networks in Canada. We’re the first and only with LTE.”[10] While certainly necessary to allow wireless providers to differentiate their services in the market and allow them to be rewarded for superior performance, there should be a limit to the liberties that wireless providers take in their marketing materials. While Rogers could have chosen to differentiate their new LTE network from their competitors’ HSPA+ networks by calling it ‘Real’ 4G, ‘True’ 4G, or some variation of that, it chose instead to market it as “beyond 4G”. While it remains to be seen whether this will cause confusion for Canadian wireless consumers, there is no doubt that the 4G ‘name game’ is alive and well north of the border.

Towards Honest Representations of Speed in Wireless Advertisements:
Although it has chosen to go above and beyond in its LTE marketing materials, it should be noted that Rogers has begun to provide potential customers with “typical” download speeds (12-25 Mbps) for their new LTE network in addition to the theoretical maximum download speeds (“up to” 75 Mbps) which are widely understood to be unattainable even in near-perfect conditions.[11] Despite the rather wide range they list as typical, Rogers further qualifies these speed claims on their website by saying that: “Actual experienced speeds depend on the network spectrum and technical specifications of the device used and may vary based on topography and environmental conditions, network congestion and other factors.”[12] While the availability of this new information should certainly be seen as a positive step forward from a consumer perspective (since the company generally only lists theoretical maximum speeds for its HSPA+ devices), it does leave the company with plenty of wiggle room if it were ever challenged on the actual performance delivered to consumers.

Minimum Guaranteed Speed:
Around the world, there are a number of jurisdictions who have begun recognizing the discrepancy between advertised speeds (based upon theoretical maximums) and the actual speeds experienced by consumers. Many of them have begun taking steps to ensure that consumers are provided with honest and transparent information when they choose a wireless/broadband provider including requirements that they provide minimum speed information to any potential customers.

For example, the Phillipines’ telecom regulator, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), announced in July 2011 that it would require broadband service providers to “specify the minimum broadband/internet connection speed and service reliability and the service rates in their offers to consumers/subscribers/users in their advertisements, flyers, brochures and service agreements and service level agreements. The minimum service reliability shall be 80%.”[13] Rather than allowing service providers to advertise based upon theoretical maximum speeds (which are practically useless), the Philippines’ telecom regulator has forced service providers to provide the minimum speeds that they should expect for at least 80% of any given month.

Similarly, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has introduced the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act in the US which would require carriers to disclose the minimum data speed of their respective networks with a minimum reliability to be established by the FCC.13 The bill, if passed, would also create an official definition of 4G and would require companies to disclose which technology they were using to provide service (HSPA+, WiMAX, LTE).[15] However, the American bill faces an uphill battle and will likely meet with great resistance from wireless/broadband providers.

While Canada has typically been behind the curve in the adoption of new wireless technologies/hardware, Rogers’ announcement of the launch of its LTE network in Ottawa has meant the city will be an early adopter of the fastest commercially-available wireless technology in the world. Hopefully, the CRTC and/or the Competition Bureau will decide to be ahead of the curve and will consider the adoption of broadband advertising guidelines that would help Rogers differentiate their LTE service without the need to play name games. Adopting these requirements would go a long way towards ensuring Canadian wireless/broadband customers are provided with information that is actually representative of true performance allowing them to make an informed decision on their next wireless provider.

References:

  1. Jamie Sturgeon, “Rogers to roll out LTE network in Ottawa” RogersLTE.com (8 June 2011), online: RogersLTE.com <http://www.RogersLTE.com/latest-lte-news> at para. 4.
  2. ITU, “ITU global standard for international mobile communications – ‘IMT-Advanced’” ITU.int (7 October 2010), online: ITU.int < http://www.itu.int/ITU-R/index.asp?category=information&rlink=imt-advanced&lang=en>.
  3. Sarah Yin, “ITU Redefines 4G again” PCMag.com (20 December 2010), online: PCMag.com <http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2374564,00.asp> at para. 6.
  4. International Telecommunications Union, “ITU World Radiocommunication Seminar highlights future communication technologies” ITU.int (6 December 2010), online: ITU.int <http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/press_releases/2010/48.aspx> at para. 8.
  5. Kevin Chan, “Telus rolls out new ‘4G’ network (really dual HSPA+)” AtMobile.ca (8 February 2011), online: AtMobile.ca < http://www.atmobile.ca/2011/02/telus-rolls-out-new-4g-network-really-dual-hspa/> at para. 1.
  6. Peja Bulatovic, “Bell tags 4G label on existing HSPA wireless network” CBC.ca (2 March 2011), online: CBC.ca <http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/03/02/bell-hspa-4g-network.html> at para. 1.
  7. Kevin McArthur, “Our take on 4G and LTE” Rogers.com (28 April 2011), online: Redboard.Rogers.com <http://www.redboard.rogers.com/2011/our-take-on-4g-and-lte> at para. 3.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Mary @ Rogers, “Twitter Status Update: 99507318571548672” Twitter.com (5 August 2011), online: Twitter.com <http://twitter.com/#!/RogersMary/status/99507318571548672>.
  10. Chris Clarke, “Twitter Status Update: 99561577371549696” Twitter.com (5 August 2011), online: Twitter.com <http://twitter.com/#!/Rogers_Chris/status/99561577371549696>.
  11. Rogers LTE, “About LTE” RogersLTE.com (2011), online: RogersLTE.com <http://www.RogersLTE.com/about-lte> at para. 2.
  12. Ibid. at Full Details.
  13. Republic of the Philippines Commission on Information and Communications Technology (NTC), “Memorandum Order No. 07-07-2011: Minimum Speed of Broadband Connections” ProPinoy.net (15 July 2011), online: ProPinoy.net <http://propinoy.net/2011/07/29/ntc07072011msbc/> at para. 10.
  14. Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act, 112th Congress, 1st Session, Anna Eshoo (sponsor) at s.3(c)1.
  15. Ibid. at s.3(c)6.
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