Telecom marketing: indecipherable jargon

March 22, 2012, 7:20 PM UTC

FORTUNE — You might think that a discussion among a bunch of telecom geeks would be the last place you should look for help in deciphering the technical gobbledygook that wireless providers tend to spew. But an article at Light Reading, and its accompanying conversation, do shed a lot of light. The conclusion: the term “4G,” while it has a valid technical definition, in practice has devolved into an essentially empty marketing term.

Most people “don’t really know what Long Term Evolution (LTE) and fourth-generation (4G) wireless technology actually mean,” writes the site’s Dan Jones. “And who can blame them? Operators have played fast and loose with the term to try and get an edge over competitors.”

Some of the blame goes to standards bodies, notes Jones, who goes on to explain the terms with unusual clarity.  The ensuing conversation is similarly clear. In the comments section, site editor Phil Harvey concludes: “The emphasis on the network technology just shows that there really isn’t that much [that is] more possible on one network vs. the other. Coverage is still the killer app and it’s odd that so many ads focus on technical terms instead of just showing what consumers can do with the device/service combo.”

Other participants note that it’s not so odd, really, given that if one service provider uses such technical mumbo-jumbo in its ads, the others — surely aren’t going to cede the jargon ground.

And once it starts, it only gets worse and worse, especially when you add the actual phones and bewildering service plans into the mix. A recent Saturday Night Livespoof of a Verizon commercial is — like all good satire — just a half-step past reality.

In a followup post, Jones reveals how each of the five biggest carriers use almost identical language in touting their services: “America’s fastest 4g network,” says Verizon (VZ). “The nation’s largest 4g network,” says AT&T (T). MetroPCS (PCS) promises “Blazing fast 4G LTE.” And so on.

“None of the big players seems to know how to differentiate their newest service from rival offerings,” Jones writes. That’s been the challenge for marketers of commodities since first sheep was ever shorn. Or rather, the second.