Is your phone 4G? Ask the UN.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the oldest member of the United Nations family, tracing its origins back to 1865. You don’t last that long as an international organization without a healthy streak of pragmatism. That characteristic has been on display recently in a squabble over how to define wireless broadband technologies. At issue has ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the oldest member of the United Nations family, tracing its origins back to 1865. You don't last that long as an international organization without a healthy streak of pragmatism. That characteristic has been on display recently in a squabble over how to define wireless broadband technologies. At issue has been how the term "4G" is defined. In October, the organization adopted a narrow definition that excluded the technologies that several players were already advertising as 4G.  

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the oldest member of the United Nations family, tracing its origins back to 1865. You don’t last that long as an international organization without a healthy streak of pragmatism. That characteristic has been on display recently in a squabble over how to define wireless broadband technologies. At issue has been how the term "4G" is defined. In October, the organization adopted a narrow definition that excluded the technologies that several players were already advertising as 4G.  

After months of wrangling, the ITU has apparently knuckled under and broadened the definition. PCMag.com has been tracking the organization’s gyrations on the question:

"When the world’s mobile carriers decided to ignore the ITU’s definition of 4G, it really put the organization in a bind," PCMag’s lead mobile analyst Sascha Segan said. "To remain relevant, the ITU had to find some way to fall in line with the language that much of the global cell phone industry is insisting on using." [snip]

A T-Mobile spokesman said the carrier was "pleased" the ITU decided to clarify its definition to include "evolved 3G technologies," which is how the carrier had been defining its super-fast network.

In 2008, Sprint Clearwire was the first to ignore the ITU’s definition and marketed its WiMAX network as 4G. Two years later, Verizon and MetroPCS followed suit by calling its LTE system "4G" and, more controversially, T-Mobile advertised its HSPA+ network as 4G as well. 

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.