The wireless wars are never boring.

This week, Deutsche Telekom (NYSE: DT) subsidiary T-Mobile launched a marketing campaign using vivid TV spots to smear dirt all over the quality of AT&T's (NYSE: T) 3G network. T-Mobile taunts Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) for tethering its handsome iPhone to Ma Bell and then limiting the FaceTime video call application to working only over Wi-Fi connections. The new myTouch 4G smartphone, built on Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) Android platform, will do video calls over T-Mobile's so-called 4G network anywhere.

The campaign is rich with subtext:

  • T-Mobile is using the visual style of Apple's own "Mac vs. PC" ads against Apple and its avowed partner.
  • Launching this campaign only weeks before Verizon (NYSE: VZ) presumably gets its hands on the iPhone to pair it with a well-respected network seems ill-timed. That is, if the Verizon iPhone rumors are true.
  • The spot seems to encourage Apple to get that ugly dude off its back and go with the hot chick who represents T-Mobile. I'm not sure that message mixes well with the generally smug tone of the video.
  • Including a purported 4G-capable netbook from Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) and the myTouch 4G phone, the Germans are going big with the whole "4G" message, even though its network actually runs just a speed-boosted version of the old 3G network rather than a future-proofed WiMAX or LTE version. Despite reports of Clearwire and T-Mobile in talks about LTE, to the best of my knowledge, T-Mobile currently has no plans to pick its poison when it comes to next-generation networks. Instead, the company plans to take the turbo-boosted 3G technology to the next level with further speed upgrades.

What is 4G, really?
And that brings us to a bigger beef than where the iPhone belongs: does 4G really mean anything anymore?

T-Mobile is using the term as a shorthand for "faster than 3G," but that's not what 4G is supposed to mean. The International Telecommunications Union standards-setting body defines 4G service as an improvement over 3G in many ways beyond pure speed. For example, true 4G services should be able to pass connection control from one cell station to the next about five times faster than LTE networks do.

Yes, LTE is commonly marketed as a 4G technology, but it doesn't meet the final requirements of the standard. The more advanced LTE-Advanced technology does, but won't be implemented anywhere in the world in the near future. Oh, and when T-Mobile fights with AT&T and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S) over network speeds topping out at 21 mbps in theory, but about 12 mbps in practice, consider that real 4G requires peak speeds of at least 100 mbps on the go and a cool gigabit in fixed situations. 4G is supposed to make more efficient use of its available bandwidth to exacting technical standards that 3G, LTE, or WiMAX can't provide.

Even if the numbers are going over your head at this point, one thing should be perfectly clear: We have a long way to go, folks.

Tomato, tomahto
Of course, some will argue that we're splitting hairs over semantics. If T-Mobile's network is faster than a plain old 3G platform and comparable to the WiMAX speeds found at Sprint, shouldn't we increment the generation count and call it 4G? That sounds eminently reasonable from a marketing perspective, and all the big boys are going along with this plan.

But there is an actual standard now with approved technologies attached, and none of what we call 4G qualifies today. It would make more sense to call it 3.5G, similar to how the EDGE low-grade data network is generation 2.5G. Or, you could ask the standards body that has been working on its specifications since 2002 to just rename its slate to 5G or something.

T-Mobile is probably smart for attaching itself to the red-hot 4G moniker, and the video attack on AT&T and Apple might even work. That doesn't make the bastardization of international standards any less annoying or unavoidable; once we started down this road there was no turning back.

Never mind Apple going after T-Mobile for making fun of its advertising concepts. I'm wondering how long it will be before class action lawsuits start hailing down over all the major networks. The very concept of "truth in advertising" sounds so quaintly antiquated these days, but there is too much wrong here to stick your head in the sand.