Confused as to what 4G speed really is on a wireless network? Some federal lawmakers are, and one of them has proposed legislation to clear up the static.

California Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, introduced the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act earlier this week, which requires wireless carriers to provide detailed information regarding guaranteed minimum data speed, network reliability, coverage areas and pricing.

Eshoo, who sits on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said in a statement that those looking at purchasing wireless plans deserve accurate information prior to signing up for service.

“The wireless industry has invested billions to improve service coverage, reliability and data speeds and consumers’ demand for 4G is expected to explode,” Eshoo said. “But consumers need to know the truth about the speeds they’re actually getting.”

The definition of 4G speed and the question of whether wireless carriers actually achieve it has been debated over the past few years. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 4G is a benchmark for technologies that reach peak 100 Mbps download speeds.

If the Eshoo proposal becomes law, wireless carriers would also need to explain the technology used to provide high-speed wireless connectivity. In addition, a listing of what network issues can have adverse impacts on the speed of applications and services used on the network would have to be provided to consumers.

Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, which lobbies for policy and regulatory reform in support of open source technology, applauded the bill and emphasized a need for “clean and concise information” regarding wireless broadband.

“Today, more than ever, as mobile broadband providers employ Orwellian doublespeak advertising that tout ‘unlimited plans’ that are in fact not unlimited and market ‘4G’ speeds in terms of ‘lightning fast’ and ‘supercharged,’ transparency rules that provide consumers with basic information regarding the actual price, minimum speed and plain language terms of service are desperately needed,” Meinrath said in a statement.

Wireless Industry Balks on ‘Guarantee’

 

Mobile broadband providers have been tight-lipped on the issue. In an e-mail to Government Technology, John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint, said the company wasn’t commenting on the legislation and referred questions to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an organization representing the wireless communications industry.

CTIA didn’t provide much insight, however. In a statement on CTIA’s website, Jot Carpenter, the association’s vice president of government affairs, said his organization was “concerned” about increased regulation of wireless broadband and said the bill ignores a wide variety of factors that affect network speeds.

Fred Campbell, president of the Wireless Communications Association International, agreed with Carpenter and compared establishing guaranteed minimum data speeds with asking a car manufacturer to guarantee a vehicle’s miles-per-gallon average.

Campbell explained that in the car industry, there is a standardized testing methodology that comes up with a miles-per-gallon number and every consumer knows that they’re not going to get exactly that average.

“If the car manufacturers were subject to a bill like this ... they would have to assume everyone floors it every single time someone is at a light and assume [consumers] have the car loaded with all the beach gear and people they can cram in there,” Campbell said. “How does that help the average consumer who doesn’t do that on a regular basis?

“That’s where I think [the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act] is problematic and becomes misleading,” Campbell added. “You have to assume almost a worst-case scenario to provide a guarantee.”

Campbell said that wireless signals are affected by a variety of factors, including weather, handset position and the time of day. While Campbell conceded the proposed bill appeared to take that into account — with language about averaging a provider’s guaranteed data speed rate over a month — he said he believed the results would still be far from accurate.

“If it’s a guarantee that you are proposing to consumers and you don’t meet that guarantee, there is a ... class-action lawsuit possibility,” Campbell said. “If I’m the wireless provider, my incentive is going to be to disclose a rate far lower than you would on average, because the closer you come to the line, the higher the likelihood you’re going to face a lawsuit.”

Verizon Wireless took a different position. In an e-mail to Government Technology, Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for the company, instead of criticizing the bill, agreed with Eshoo that consumers should have clarity.

“When companies exaggerate their claims and relegate technology advances into nothing more than marketing games, they shouldn't be surprised when elected officials insist that consumers receive truthful and accurate information," Nelson said.

The Next Generation Wireless Act has been referred to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee for discussion. At press time on Friday, June 24, a spokesperson for the committee confirmed the bill had not been set for a hearing.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.