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U.S. Senators Look to Clarify Wireless 4G Speeds for Consumers

New legislation would require wireless carriers to clearly state speed and reliability of mobile phone networks.

by / October 18, 2011
Illustration by Tom McKeith Tom McKeith

Federal lawmakers are getting serious about clarifying what 4G speed on a wireless network really is.

The Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, a bill that would force wireless providers to disclose speed and reliability information about their 4G data services. The issue has been prevalent in Congress this year, as a similar measure was proposed in June by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Al Franken, D-Minn., the new legislation would require wireless carriers to include details — such as coverage area maps, pricing and the technology used to provide 4G services — at the point of sale for those services and on consumer bills.

In addition, information on the network conditions that can impact the speed of applications and services would also have to be available.

“When consumers purchase a 4G wireless plan, they have the right to know exactly what they’re getting for their money,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This legislation will help ensure that wireless companies are honest about their product’s capabilities so consumers can get a fair deal.”

Franken added in a press release, “Wireless providers need to make sure their customers can count on the speed, reliability and the price they were promised when they signed up. And if they can’t fulfill their promise, they need to be held accountable.”

Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the mobile providers, said in a statement on the organization’s website that Congress shouldn’t be imposing new regulations on the industry.

“As we have said before, this bill proposes to add an additional layer of regulation to a new and exciting set of services, while ignoring the fact that wireless is an inherently complex and dynamic environment in which network speeds can vary depending on a wide variety of factors, such as weather, terrain and foliage,” he said.

Fred Campbell, president and CEO of the Wireless Communications Association International, agreed.

“Consumers benefit from useful information about their mobile services, but congressionally mandating ‘guaranteed minimum’ mobile data speeds wouldn’t be useful,” Campbell wrote in an e-mail to Government Technology. “The only ‘guaranteed’ mobile data speed permitted by the laws of physics is zero.”

In June, Campbell made the same argument regarding the House of Representatives’ version of the bill. Campbell said at the time that wireless signals are subject to the dictates of physics and as a result can be affected by what time or day a measurement is taken and whether it’s raining or not.

“What the bill doesn’t even mention is that these data rates are going to vary by geography,” Campbell explained. “Are you averaging over the entire country or over a particular area? To the extent you average over the country, again, your measurement fluctuation is going to increase.”

The proposed Senate legislation would also mandate that the FCC evaluate the speed and price of 4G wireless data services provided by the 10 largest wireless carriers. Consumers would then have a comparison of services in their areas.

At press time, messages left for representatives of Blumenthal and Verizon seeking comment on the Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act had not been returned.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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