T-Mobile’s HSPA+: the phantom network

In my ongoing struggle to achieve 4G speeds on my T-Mobile G2, I’ve found that the one speed-mitigating factor that I could not eliminate from my tests was the potential connection to a lesser network. It should be pretty easy to determine whether I’m connected via T-Mobile’s 2G, EDGE; the early 3G technology UMTS; T-Mobile’s standard 3G product, HSPA, or their blazing new upgraded network that will be marketed as 4G, HSPA+. But guess what; it isn’t easy to tell the difference–not for me, and not for the service reps and techs at T-Mobile.

When I first got my G2, I expected some confusion over at Magenta. After all, they were training employees on a hot new phone that was the first to fully support their HSPA+ network. Two major releases at once, in a single product. I mention this because it’s possible I was given bad information. But I don’t know that I was.

I made a number of phone calls to T-Mobile with the goal of finding out which network I was connected to, because I was seeing 3G speeds when I ran the SpeedTest app from the Android Market. 2-3Mbps down was the usual, which is what I was getting with my Nexus One (3G only) on T-Mobile. Was my G2 even utilizing HSPA+? Here’s what I was told by one customer service representative and two tech support agents: The icon used in the Android notification bar to indicate an HSPA connection (an “H” next to the signal strength bars) is also used to indicate an HSPA+ connection. “3G” is used to indicate a UMTS (early 3G technology) connection (on other devices; not G2). You can go into the network information screen within the Android settings and find out if you’re on UMTS or HSDPA, but the latter is used for both HSPA and HSPA+. This is what T-Mobile reps told me on several occasions. (If the info is incorrect, a comment would be greatly appreciated.) One tech told me: “The only way to tell the difference between an HSPA connection and an HSPA+ connection is the speeds you are getting.” According to this barometer, I was experiencing the HSPA network, no “+.”

I’ve had people tell me that they achieved 13Mbps down here in Charlotte, where I was stuck under 4Mbps, but I have yet to see any proof of this. It’s possible that the network isn’t fully functioning in my area, that it’s not performing at its full potential, or that I’ve never actually connected to HSPA+. Charlotte is (officially) covered, and I took that into account when I reviewed the G2, as I did when I sold the device. Super high speeds aren’t that important to me when mobile, but it is a key selling point of the device. If it’s not working, do I need the phone? It seems that the primary issue here–the one that must be resolved before serious troubleshooting can occur–is being able to determine if the HSPA+ network is even being used by the phone. A factory reset didn’t solve my problem, so I sold the phone and decided to wait until T-Mobile or HTC did something about the issue. I’m looking at what could be evidence of some action on their part.

Before the G2 was released, a member of xda-developers scanned a leaked software dump from the device and confirmed to me that there was no dedicated HSPA+ icon. I’ve never seen one in the wild, nor have I even heard of one. Today, a DroidDog reader sent me a photo of an advertizement in the November issue of WIRED magazine and there appeared to be an HSPA+ icon on one of the phones. I decided to go grab an issue. Check it out, Reddit style:

So there you have it: a couple of pixels that could indicate an update that delivers a dedicated HSPA+ icon, or evidence of a flaw in WIRED’s print process. I very much doubt a designer would add the “+” when pasting those screen grabs onto the G2 bodies. Is this post much ado about nothing? Possibly, but before I condemn HSPA+ in my current city I have to know that I’ve used it. As of this moment I can’t say that I have. My EVO tripled the download speeds of my G2 when I ran my tests but I’ve heard that the inverse is true of the same products in other cities. I’d like to know what I need to be reporting to T-Mobile, hopefully before their Galaxy Tab (with HSPA+ support) is released.

Thanks to Stephan for the WIRED tip!