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4G iPhone On AT&T? New Network Indicator Causes Controversy

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4G or not 4G? That is the question at the center of a controversy surrounding AT&T, Apple, and a little 4G indicator symbol that suddenly showed up on iPhones as of Wednesday.

The controversy began with the release of iOS 5.1, Apple's latest operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. iOS 5.1 became available for download Wednesday afternoon following the conclusion of Apple's iPad event; after installing the iOS update on their iPhones, many iPhone 4S users on AT&T's network were surprised to see the letters "4G" next to the cell signal icon on the upper lefthand corner of their display screens. Had AT&T subscribers suddenly gotten a boost in data speed with their newest mobile OS?

In a word: No. Your iPhone 4S is going to download email, stream movies, and connect to Facebook at the exact same speeds as it did before, when the icon said "3G."

So what's the deal with the 4G icon?

Though AT&T offers the faster 4G (or fourth-generation) LTE service for some of its smartphones and tablets, the iPhone 4S does not have the proper internal chipset to connect to that network; instead it connects to the HSPA+ network, an older, though enhanced, 3G network whose peak data rates are slower than those on LTE, but which AT&T and T-Mobile both refer to as 4G on their website and advertising materials.

Most people, however -- including outspoken, outraged technology writers at The Next Web and The Verge -- consider HSPA+ to be a 3G technology, and the appearance of a 4G icon to be "marketing BS"; "AT&T Falsely Upgrades iPhone 4S TO '4G,'" read the headline of a Minyanville story blasting the change. A Samsung commercial from late 2011 even mocked the iPhone 4S for not being a 4G phone.

If you're an AT&T iPhone owner, your download and upload speeds remain the same; so why are you now being told that your iPhone is 4G?

"The simple reason is that it's a 4G device," AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told the Huffington Post in a phone interview. "AT&T runs two 4G technologies: One is called HSPA+ and the other is called LTE. This is an HSPA+ device, hence the 4G indicator."

"It [the iPhone 4S] has always had that capability, and we're glad it's now displayed on the phones."

And responding to the charge that HSPA+ is a 3G, not a 4G network:

"I've seen that criticism, but it's been accepted for some time by a variety of standards bodies that HSPA+ is a 4G network," Siegel said. "I understand what people are saying but [HSPA+] has been recognized as 4G."

Siegel was referring, perhaps, to a December 2010 decision by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that said that because the initial speed standards for 4G were too far away from being achieved by any network, LTE, WiMax, and "other evolved 3G technologies" (including HSPA+) could henceforth be referred to as 4G. Not every standards body agrees, however, and many view LTE and WiMax as the only "true" 4G options in the United States.

The debate between whether the iPhone 4S is a "real 4G smartphone" appears poised to rage on, with an outraged tech blogosphere chiding AT&T and Apple for dishonesty and marketing manipulation, and AT&T pointing to the ITU's December 2010 decision. As for what this means to AT&T customers with the iPhone 4S: Well, your phone didn't get any faster with iOS 5.1, but it did get a fancy new status icon.

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