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Apple in court: ACCC iPad fight tests dodgy 4G claims

4G is a dog’s breakfast, and Apple may end up eating it, served on an iPad.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission took Apple to court today, claiming that describing its new iPad as “iPad with WiFi + 4G” is misleading. They’ve got a point, not just about Apple but the entire dodgy industry.

The iPad says “4G” on the box — referring to the so-called fourth generation of mobile communication standards — and Telstra’s new mobile network is marketed as “4G” too, but the two can’t talk to each other. Same goes for the forthcoming Optus 4G network, and probably Vodafone’s as well.

The ACCC reckons this misrepresents to Australian consumers that the iPad can connect to a 4G mobile data network in Australia — and that breaches sections 18, 29(1)(a), 29(1)(g) and 33 of the Australian Consumer Law. They’re after urgent interlocutory relief to make sure consumers are made aware of the technical limitations, and then injunctions, financial penalties, corrective advertising and refunds for any affected consumers.

The traditional asterisk leading to a paragraph of fine print may or may not get Apple off the hook.

So why won’t the iPad do 4G in Australia? At one level it’s simply a matter of spectrum allocation.

In the US, the 4G networks deployed so far operate in the 700MHz and 2100MHz bands, and the new iPad can do 4G in either of them — although you have to buy a model configured for a specific mobile network. There’s only so much room inside an iPad for radio antennas.

But in Australia, 700MHz is still being used by the remaining analog TV services, and 2100MHz by existing 3G networks. Telstra rolled out its new 4G network in the 1800MHz band instead and so will Optus. The iPad simply doesn’t do 4G on 1800MHz.

This may change, of course. As soon as the 700MHz band frees up the government intends to auction it off, but that won’t be available to telcos until 2015. Or Apple could produce a 1800MHz-capable model. But the case is about what Apple is doing today, not some imaginary sparkly future.

At another level, though, this case has the potential to open another can of worms: the fact that “4G” is bullshit.

It isn’t a single technical standard, but a label that actual technical standards developed by other bodies can use if they meet certain criteria set by the International Telecommunications Union’s Radio communications sector (ITU-R) in 2008 — the IMT-Advanced Requirements.

Those criteria include peak data transmission speeds of 100 megabits per second in high-mobility situations like moving vehicles and up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbit/s) otherwise — as well as a bunch of stuff only communications engineers would understand.

The number of standards that have so far been certified as meeting IMT-Advanced Requirements? Zero.

Neither the 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard used by Telstra, soon Optus, and many other networks around the world, nor the competing Mobile WiMAX standard used by the rest, come close to the required data transmission speeds.

Nevertheless, in a glorious piece of doublethink, ITU-R is letting these non-compliant standards use the 4G label because they’re forerunners to actual 4G versions. They’re pre-4G or near-4G, and apparently that’s good enough.

This isn’t the first time this has happened either. Just one example is that industry was selling Wi-Fi devices as being “Wireless N capable” — that is, confirming to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standards 802.11N — before that standard had even been finalised.

Add to this the industry’s habit of advertising data speeds than can only be achieved in laboratory conditions, storage capacities that can never be achieved because of system overheads, and battery life times that can only be achieved if you don’t actually use the device in question for anything practical.

To me that looks like an industry where misleading the customers is completely normal, and where the technology journalists don’t call them on it because by and large they’re geeks too, they get it, and expect everyone else to do the same.

If ACCC v Apple does address the full complexity of the 4D issue, it’ll be doing all of us a big favour.

As this story was filed, it’s being reported Apple has agreed to publish a clarification, and offer a refund to customers who feel they were misled.

The case continues in the Federal Court in Melbourne later today.

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