Is AT&T's iPhone 4S More Equal Than Others?

All iPhone 4Ses are equal, but some iPhone 4Ses are more equal than others.

This is the Orwellian approach that AT&T (NYSE: T  ) will be taking with Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) latest and greatest iPhone iteration. The wireless carrier will try to differentiate its offering from key rivals Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) by claiming that its model will boast higher data speeds. The most interesting fact? Its claims are actually theoretically accurate.

The iPhone 4S models will actually be the same, but the difference lies in AT&T's network architecture. The iPhone 4S was built to support a technology called high-speed downlink packet access, or HSDPA, which is related to GSM networks like AT&T's and T-Mobile's, while Sprint and Big Red use a different technology called evolution-data optimized, or EVDO, with their respective CDMA networks.

The 4S supports up to 14.4 Mbps download speeds with HSDPA, but Apple wasn't quick to point out that those theoretical maximum speeds won't apply to Sprint and Verizon at all. This means that two out of three of the domestic carriers won't be able to take advantage of the higher theoretical speeds and will be relegated to the previous generation's maximum speeds.

This all sounds fine and dandy for AT&T, in theory. The problem is that in reality, AT&T's HSDPA network capabilities are nowhere near the theoretical maximum of 14.4 Mbps. AT&T's developer site provides an explanation of its various wireless technologies, and here is an excerpt from its description of HSDPA:

HSDPA -- an enhanced protocol in the HSPA family -- is the highest-performance cellular-data technology ever deployed. Its peak theoretical rate is 14.4 megabits per second (Mbps). AT&T has engineered its network so that most users' experience typical downlink throughput rates of 700 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 1.7 Mbps, with bursts over 1 Mbps. Typical uplink rates are 500 Kbps to 1.2 Mbps.

Source: AT&T Developer Program site.

The site is current as of Sept. 2, so this description is fairly recent. You'll notice that in real-world performance, the company concedes that users typically get up to only about 1.7 Mbps. This doesn't even come close to the previous iPhone 4's theoretical maximum of 7.2 Mbps, much less the iPhone 4S's 14.4 Mbps limit.

There is one wireless carrier that has a beefier 14.4 Mbps HSDPA network: T-Mobile. Even though AT&T has been trying to scoop up the smaller carrier, T-Mobile's network operates on different frequencies than the iPhone 4S supports, so it wouldn't be of much use to the device.

A network by any other name would download just as fast
Both AT&T and T-Mobile have been quick to advertise each of their networks as "4G." This is mostly a marketing gimmick bound to confuse the average consumer. The International Telecommunications Union, one of many international organizations that try to call the shots, has decided that the only technologies that are truly "4G" are LTE and WiMAX, although the semantic debate continues to rage on. The top three carriers have opted for LTE, while Sprint is practically abandoning Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR  ) and WiMAX.

AT&T and T-Mobile have continued to heavily market their networks as 4G. Apple has shied away from participating in the debate but instead focuses on the fact that the iPhone 4S does support speeds on par with other Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android devices that are marketed as 4G, like the Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI  ) Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G.

Guilty by association
Taking the marketing shenanigans a step further, AT&T has confirmed that it is "working together" with Apple on adding a 4G indicator in the iPhone 4S status bar, which would be exclusive to its network. The possible addition would be done by an iOS update directly from Apple. No decisions have been made, but it's notable that Apple is even considering this, since it has long refused to give in to carrier demands. If Apple goes along with AT&T's request, it would be implicitly siding with AT&T and its 4G marketing.

Regardless of whether Apple acquiesces to the plot, don't expect AT&T's marketing department to let up. The commercials haven't started yet, but you can bet your first-born child that they'll go something like this: "AT&T, the only network to get the all-new iPhone 4S with blazing fast 4G speeds!" In fact, the carrier has already put out a press release to that effect, proclaiming, "Only AT&T's Network Lets Your iPhone 4S Download Twice as Fast."

The real McCoy
Don't buy into cheap marketing gimmicks. All internet service providers, wireless or otherwise, have a bad habit of advertising maximum theoretical download speeds and trying to absolve themselves with fine-print disclosures. The reality is that none of the networks actually get close to those speed limits. I'll be waiting for next year's iPhone, as I'm fully expecting it to come with real 4G in the form of LTE, and it might even include near-field communications.

Keep tabs on AT&T's shenanigans by adding it to your Watchlist. And get access to a free video report on near-field communications, or NFC, a technology that might make your credit card worthless.

It is inadvisable to wager your first-born child on anything, and this fine-print disclosure absolves Fool contributor Evan Niu from any liability associated with lost bets. He still wishes he could upgrade to an iPhone 4S this year -- if only it weren't for his pesky contract. He owns shares of AT&T and Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Google, and AT&T and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 5:16 PM, makelvin wrote:

    Frankly, I am a little tired of this 4G claims from all these carriers; particularly AT&T and Verizon. What is the point of 4G speed when both of these carriers have a data cap of only 2GB per month? Having a faster bandwidth with a limited data each month only means that you are more likely to run into the data-cap before the end of the month and end up either having to pay penalty or result in a severe data throttling that will be slower that 2G.

    Sprint is the only one still offers unlimited data plan with no throttling, but WiMax is really not much better that 3G speed. Now that Sprint is getting iPhone as well, we'll see how long they can hold out with their unlimited data plan.

    The bottom-line is, unless these carriers either remove their data-cap or significantly up their cap limit, the 4G is really more for marketing than actual practical usage for most users.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 5:33 PM, TMFNewCow wrote:


    Some very justifiable frustration, but keep in mind the data speeds don't necessarily affect how much data you're getting, just how fast you're getting it. Sure you might hit those caps faster, but I wouldn't say it's directly related.

    In fairness, Verizon's 4G claims are specifically related to its LTE coverage. But yes, they still cap your data.

    I agree that it will be interesting to see if Sprint sticks by its unlimited data, it might be a selling point to bring over data-intensive iPhone users.

    -- Evan

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 7:00 PM, makelvin wrote:


    Data cap is to limit the allowable data per month. The amount of data per unit time is directly related to data speed by definition.

    I really don't need my web page to be able to load a second faster. It usually takes me a lot more time than a second to go through each web page anyway. One of the top reason for most people to want higher speed data is for video. 4G bandwidth allows video conferencing and video streaming a reality; but with the limited data-cap, that reality is more of an illusion than reality. As I said before, without unlimited data or significantly upping the data cap, the 4G is quite meaningless in real life usage.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 7:07 PM, petesza wrote:

    you may not need your web page to load a second or two faster but as soon as you get a 4G LTE phone you will never want to go back :)

    I'll never go back

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 8:27 PM, H3D wrote:

    "The reality is that none of the networks actually get close to those speed limits. I'll be waiting for next year's iPhone, as I'm fully expecting it to come with real 4G in the form of LTE, and it might even include near-field communications."

    But then even LTE phones won't come close to the theoretical throughput of LTE. So by your measure, that makes it no good.

    Whereas 2G can get very close to the theoretical limit of 2G, so that makes 2G best of all.

    No. I think the premise of this article is bunkum.

  • Report this Comment On October 09, 2011, at 11:17 PM, jhf678 wrote:

    It is good that we have more competition from Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless about the iPhone. That way we consumer can choose our budget to decide which carrier fit us the best. I am not frustrated or complaining about anything. In the end, I think that all three will do well with the iPhone because I have done some research and found out that their pre order are selling like hot cake.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2011, at 3:03 AM, jhf678 wrote:

    I will go with comcast, which is faster than AT&T.

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