LAST week South Africa's third cellular operator Cell C launched its new "4Gs" service in Port Elizabeth, ahead of a phased nationwide rollout.
As the company was preparing to launch the service, rivals MTN and Vodacom were at the Advertising Standards Authority lodging a complaint. Their assertion is that Cell C is deliberately misleading the South African public because the new service is not 4G.
Unfortunately we cannot get to the bottom of this issue without getting technical - but I'll try to keep the geek speak to an absolute minimum.
The first time consumers in this country connected to the internet on cellular networks they did so using a technology called GPRS - general packet radio service. This was a 2G, or "second-generation" cellular technology.
Not long after the introduction of GPRS, a new technology became available called EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution) which is considered as a 3G technology, according to the definition provided by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the industry body that has the last word on these things.
The term 3G describes all third-generation cellular wireless standards including HSPA, CDMA and WiMax in the 802.16 standard.
Various third-generation technologies, such as those listed above, were implemented by different networks across the world and consumers hardly know or care what their provider is using - so long as it works.
The fourth generation of cellular wireless standards, or 4G, are still in their infancy. One technology, called LTE (long-term evolution) seems to be leading the pack as the 4G standard of choice for most cellular networks. Other technologies, like more recent revisions of WiMax, are considered to qualify as 4G too.
But there is marketing gold in the name - because whoever gets 4G to market first will be able to claim better speeds and reliability than their competitors.
Consumers have been conditioned on the 3G term and it is logical that they will consider 4G to be the next big thing in mobile broadband, without necessarily understanding the standards they are using to connect with.
The term is being abused all over the world. In the USA, Sprint has launched what it calls a 4G network which is really a CDMA network that doesn't make the grade.
But what is the grade?
The ITU, as mentioned above, is the industry body that sets the standards in terms of definition. According to it, a cellular data network must accommodate target peak data rates of 100Mbps to qualify as 4G, irrespective of what technology is used. So even LTE isn't 4G, if it isn't implemented in such a way that makes 100Mbps peak speeds available to users.
There is only one truly 4G network in the world today - TeliaSonera in Sweden and Norway. A second is being deployed in the USA, but is not live yet.
Back to Cell C. It's new network uses a standard called HSPA+ to deliver peak speeds of 21.6Mbps. While this is many times faster than a Telkom ADSL connection, for example, it is not fast enough to qualify as 4G as per the ITU definition with its 100Mpbs minimum requirement.
Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt has attempted to qualify his company's use of the name, because he says 4G is an ambiguous term that has different definitions depending on who you speak to. According to Reichelt, it is impossible to determine what exactly qualifies as 4G.
He has therefore added the "s" to the name and says that Cell C's 4Gs stands both "for great service" and "for great speed". It isn't claiming to be true 4G, according to Reichelt.
The real question is, do we care?
I was in Port Elizabeth for the launch of 4Gs and have had the opportunity to experiment with it since. In my experience, it is somewhat faster than the 3G connections from other providers I have used and just falls short of matching them for latency - or the speed it takes a packet of data to be transmitted.
The most important feature of Cell C's 4Gs, however, has nothing to do with speed and everything to do with price. Starting from 5c per MB in bundle, it is much cheaper than the prices currently available from MTN and Vodacom.
On a technology level, HSPA+ is a great technology and using it on the 900MHz frequency is an advantage for Cell C. This is because it means the signal is stronger, penetrates walls more effectively and allows the network to cover a larger area with fewer base stations, compared to technologies such as Vodacom's HSUPA on 2100MHz.
But both Vodacom and MTN have already begun rolling out HSPA+ and have it live in most of the country. Cell C has been playing catch-up with the competition rather than leapfrogging them.
I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not Cell C is misleading the public. A ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority will have the final say.
My guess is that most savvy users will know the difference between real 4G and what Cell C is offering, while your average consumer probably doesn't care.