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The 4G ad wars: Evaluating AT&T and Verizon Wireless

Wireless carriers are battling in print, TV and Web commercials that focus on having the biggest 4G network or the most 4G coverage. All these commercials create a phony issue that doesn't relate to the actual reasons for choosing 4G service or choosing a given carrier to provide it.

We looked at two TV ads, from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, posted on their YouTube accounts.

Who really has the most 4G wireless coverage?

Performance and pricing determine the "4G experience"

The AT&T commercial consists of nearly 30 seconds of listening to the monotonous guitar hammering of "Memory Lane" by Eddy Current Suppression Ring and watching a young Dude appearing in about 40 different locations, with not quite that many girls, and with his trusty AT&T smartphone. He talks, laughs, smiles, walks, lies on a beach, looks at stuff, texts, takes photos of himself with one or another of the girls, and stuff like that.

At the end, and 30 seconds rarely has felt so long, the voice-over says, "AT&T. The nation's largest 4G network, covering 2,000 more 4G cities than Verizon."

Or as the YouTube text helpfully elaborates, "This spot follows our main character as he uses his AT&T smartphone throughout his adventures across the states. He chronicles his travels and shares his memories and experiences with the people he cares about thanks to AT&T, the nation's largest 4G network."

The concept of the "nation's largest 4G network" is a key message for AT&T. The carrier arrives at "largest" by adding together cities covered by two different cellular technologies, both of which AT&T labels 4G: LTE, in 103 cities at this writing, and HSPA+, which covers a whole lot more.

AT&T's website distinguishes between the two. 4G LTE represents the "fastest mobile Internet speeds," whereas "4G Mobile Broadband" is the carrier's "4G HSPA+ network with enhanced backhaul. AT&T's 4G HSPA+ network is capable of delivering 4G speeds when combined with enhanced backhaul."

Apparently our Dude in the TV commercial is On the Road, an epic journey of exploration and discovery. Who is this guy? He's young. A casual dresser. He laughs a lot. His one obvious flaw is that he favors clear plastic parasols on rainy days. Perhaps he's a successful high-tech entrepreneur who's cashed out on some esoteric Web technology and retired at what looks like about 26 or so, and with time to kill and money to spend, decides to have adventures across the states. All 50 of them it seems. Maybe he's decided to visit the "2,000 more 4G cities than Verizon" that AT&T covers with the nation's largest 4G network.

Verizon Wireless takes a less impressionistic approach: It focuses on, you know, facts. This commercial, called "Easy Choice," opens with the headline "4G LTE Focus Group," so we know the people we're about to see are "real" people.

It's a conference room, clean, well-ordered, spare. The Focus Group Guy (FGG) begins helpfully by telling us that 4G LTE "has the fastest speeds."

"So, let's talk about coverage," he says, getting right to The Point. We see an easel with a bar chart, labeled "U.S. Markets with 4G LTE Coverage." A humongous red bar -- Verizon! -- rears up from the x coordinate, towering above the shrimpy little LTE bars for AT&T, and Sprint and poor T-Mobile.

"Based on this chart, who would you choose?" he asks the focus group. And they are wowed, stunned, impressed. Eventually, they all agree that they'd choose Verizon. The voice-over, as the words "It's an easy choice" appear on screen: "It doesn't matter how you present it. Verizon. More 4G LTE coverage than all other networks combined."

But what are these people "choosing" Verizon for? The FGG's question is ambiguous. He could be asking, "Based on this chart, which carrier would you choose as having the most LTE sites?" In that case, it's a simple matter of counting, and currently Verizon does indeed have the largest number of LTE cities. But he could also be asking, and this clearly seems to be the implication of the commercial, "Based on this chart, which carrier would you choose as your LTE provider?"

Both AT&T and Verizon are trying to persuade people that having a lot of LTE or 4G base stations somehow makes for a superior or better network, and therefore becomes a reason, or even the reason, for choosing the carrier. But you'd have to be as peripatetic as AT&T's Dude before a nationwide network of Verizon LTE base stations actually becomes a tangible benefit.

About one mile from where I live there's a main drag with a McDonald's, a Burger King and a Mexican restaurant that's part of a small Massachusetts chain. Based on the number of fast food restaurants owned by McDonald's, Burger King and this Massachusetts restaurant chain, which would you choose?

The answer is: The number doesn't have any bearing on my choice. I don't care if McDonald's has eleventy zillion stores in 50 states. I only care if it's got one where I live. And if I want TexMex instead of a Big Mac, I don't care even if there is a McDonald's where I live.

Consumer Reports, while not the last word on cellular service and phones, lists a "reader score" of overall satisfaction with their cellular service and then a set of criteria that CR's experts created for measuring specific features or attributes. "Voice and texting scores are relative (reflecting differences from the average of all providers)." It then goes on to give mean scores on a scale of "Very poor" to "Excellent" for: "value for money, satisfaction with data service, ease and speed of reaching support staff through the phone system, and support staff knowledge. Issue resolved ratings are relative as well."

There's no rating of coverage, reflecting the fact the total number of LTE or 4G cities served by a carrier is simply not a criteria for buying a particular phone or choosing a particular provider. In fact, the major wireless carriers in CR's most recent ratings scored well below much smaller providers, which often make use of one of the major's wireless network and may focus only on a given region.

CR concludes: "On the whole, readers who prepaid for their service (without a contract, for monthly minutes, unlimited or pay-as-you-go) were more satisfied overall than respondents with standard service. Customers at prepaid carriers were also happier with the value for money of their service."

Data speeds, the latest network technology, are only one part, and apparently often not the biggest part, in customer satisfaction with wireless service. TV commercials that focus on the number of cities covered by a 4G service simply try to deflect attention from more substantive and more relevant issues.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww Email: [email protected]

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