In a competitive environment, one would expect to see carriers touting their networks as being the biggest, best and fastest, and wireless carriers have been playing that game since 1983. The run-up to ubiquitous 4G coverage now has the country’s four major wireless carriers (and, if AT&T has its way, that number will decrease to three) claiming ownership of the following categories: First to the 4G market (Sprint), fastest 4G speeds (Verizon Wireless) and largest coverage area (T-Mobile USA).

According to Sprint, 4G speeds are as much as 10 times faster than 3G speeds, akin to “swapping out DSL for a high-speed cable modem.” The numbers on that carrier’s Website look like this:

4G 3G
Average download speeds 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps
Peak download speeds Faster than 10 Mbps As much as 3.1 Mbps

As more consumers start using their smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices to stream video and other data-intensive apps and services, the need for 4G speed (and capacity) will grow. However, there is no “standard definition” of 4G speed, and users only have had wireless-carrier marketing initiatives on which to rely for information.

All that may change if new legislation introduced by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, ends up being the law of the land.
In a nutshell, the “Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act” aims to help ensure that consumers have accurate information about the speed of a particular carrier’s 4G service before committing to a plan. The bill also could help wireless subscribers understand network reliability, coverage and pricing.

"Consumers deserve to know exactly what they’re getting for their money when they sign up for a 4G data plan," comments Rep. Eshoo. "The wireless industry has invested billions to improve service coverage, reliability and data speeds, and consumer demand for 4G is expected to explode. But consumers need to know the truth about the speeds they’re actually getting. My legislation is simple – it will establish guidelines for understanding what 4G speed really is, and ensure that consumers have all the information they need to make an informed decision."

Language in the proposed legislation would require carriers or retailers to provide consumers with the following information at the point of sale and in all billing materials:

  • Guaranteed minimum data speed
  • Network reliability
  • Coverage area maps
  • Pricing
  • Technology used to provide 4G service
  • Network conditions that can impact the speed of applications and services used on the network

The legislation also requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to evaluate the speed and price of 4G wireless data service provided by the Top Ten U.S. wireless carriers to provide current and potential 4G users with access to a side-by-side comparison in their service areas.

The congresswoman adds, "Consumers want faster, more reliable wireless data service, and I look forward to working with industry and consumer groups to achieve this goal. We need to enhance transparency and ensure consumers are fully informed before they commit to a long-term service contract."

Of course, the introduction of this bill garnered support from the following consumer groups:

  • Parul P. Desai, policy counsel at Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports): "The Eshoo bill will empower consumers who are shopping for wireless broadband service. It will help people cut through the clutter so we can compare prices and options, and we can better understand what really constitutes 4G data service. Right now, there aren’t a lot of consumer protections for mobile broadband customers, and the Eshoo bill would help ensure consumers have certain rights and information when they sign up for a plan."
  • Sascha Meinrath, Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative: "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."
  • Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president/policy director at the Media Access Project: "This bill might not have been necessary if there were enough competition in the wireless market, but there isn’t.”
  • Gigi B. Sohn, president, Public Knowledge: "…this increased transparency within the mobile space will enable consumers to better understand a product before committing to a lengthy contract with a particular provider.”

However, wireless-industry response is a bit less congratulatory. Commented Jot Carpenter, vice president/government affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, in a written statement, “We are concerned that the bill proposes to add a new 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.”

He continued, “Congress should resist calls to impose new regulations and instead focus on the real issue, which is making sure that America’s wireless carriers have sufficient spectrum to lead the world in the race to deploy 4G services.”

The Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act has been moved to the full House Energy & Commerce Committee for its consideration. To read the entire document, click here.

-Debra Baker

The Daily

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