Ignore smartphone jargon when upgrading

Wednesday , February 22, 2012 - 11:47 AM

Tyler Dukes

Whether you're looking to upgrade or join the almost 50 percent of mobile subscribers with a smartphone, you're in for a daunting task.

According to data from Nielsen's third-quarter 2011 mobile media report, adoption of these high-tech devices has doubled in the past two years. But the marketing jargon surrounding smartphones and the differences between 3G and 4G doesn't make shopping for them easy.

The confusion is so universally recognized it even ended up as a gag on "Saturday Night Live," where a parody Verizon ad depicted a salesman throwing out acronyms and product names so fast the customer left the store in disgust. The punch line: "Verizon: It's an old person's nightmare."

But even consumer advocates say there's a reason mobile services are so hard to explain: It's just complicated.

"Because this is such a growing, developing industry, it is very confusing," said Ruth Susswein, deputy director of national priorities at the nonprofit Consumer Action. "Even some of the information offered by experts is confusing."

For starters, there are the tricky basic definitions -- what makes a network third-generation, or 3G, instead of 4G. These standards are dictated by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union. The organization tries to create a vocabulary that can help government and industry around the world speak the same language when they're talking about mobile technology.

The group established the standards for 3G in 2000 and for 4G in January.

That, however, didn't stop wireless companies from offering customers "4G" networks ahead of time.



The reality is that, at least according to international standards, mobile consumers can't yet get real 4G, which the International Telecommunication Union says will be up to 100 times faster than current 3G. That speed, though, is highly dependent on a number of factors and isn't the only thing that defines fourth-generation mobile technology.

According to the global trade group Wireless Communication Association International, only super-advanced versions of two technologies on the market now -- WiMax and LTE -- meet this criteria as established by the International Telecommunication Union. And Fred Campbell, the group's president and CEO, estimates early deployments of their upgraded versions aren't due out for three to five years.

The International Telecommunication Union accepted in late 2010 that companies will use "4G" to refer to the predecessors of actual fourth-generation networks, as long as they did actually perform better than 3G networks. But that's not likely to stop confusion when companies offer the real thing.

The lesson here? Skip the jargon.

Susswein said consumers should spend their time researching a few important areas.

"For the average person, what they really ought to focus on is how much data I use, will I have access to it, and what's it going to cost me," Susswein said.

In March, Consumer Action launched WirelessED, at http://www.wireless-education.org, a site aimed at educating mobile phone customers. The project is funded by mobile juggernaut AT&T, but Susswein says the information on the site doesn't attempt to sway consumers toward any company. The site provides explainers, training resources and tools like a calculator to help assess how large your data plan should be.

Shopping for a smartphone isn't always easy, but Campbell said consumers have plenty of experience with complex purchasing decisions, like cars and trucks with tons of features. It takes time to research and compare options before settling on the complete package.

"I think mobile wireless is heading down a similar path," Campbell said. "There are an enormous number of options."

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