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Random ramblings of a tech enthusiast

What 4G Means to You (Besides more money)

You may be wondering what 4G wireless means. All four of the major U.S. wireless carriers are marketing a 4G service. 4G simply means “fourth generation,” which is the next generation after 3G.

As the Best Buy Buy Back Program Super Bowl ad with Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne points out, these terms can be very confusing with technology moving quickly. Hopefully after reading this article you will have a better understanding as to what they mean. (This article is intended to be a general overview; links to more in-depth reading are at the end of the article)

Summary

All 4G services will be an improvement on 3G services of the past. You will need a new phone or tablet to use these services. These devices will need to be approved to work on your 4G network of choice. Be careful of service pricing as most carriers add on fees for the advanced 4G networks.

My personal rankings of 4G services based on average speeds, combined with the roadmap of 4G services.
1. Verizon (LTE)
2. T-Mobile (HSPA+)
3. Sprint (WiMax)
4. AT&T (HSPA+) [I recommend waiting for LTE on AT&T]

The most important factor when choosing a 4G service is the coverage in your area. It won’t matter how good the network is if you don’t have the coverage in your home or work.

Theoretical Definition

There is an agency of the United Nations called The International Telecommunications Union that helps define certain technologies. They have come out and said that no wireless network operates a 4G network today. Part of the standard set out in the past was that 4G networks would have speeds of 100 Mbps. In comparison, most cable internet providers have somewhere between 5-20 Mbps to your home. That being said, carriers such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon all have services that they brand as 4G. Here’s why.

Most of the 4G services offered by carriers today are going to be much faster than the 3G services of the past. A 4G service by the old definition of the ITU is trivial and only affects the engineering back-end of things.

Carrier Implementation

Sprint has offered a 4G service for some time now. It is actually ClearWire’s WiMax service. It provides fast data, where available. Sprint’s 4G service has average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps where their 3G service has average speeds of 600 Kbps-1.4Mbps. That means their 4G is about 5 times the speed of their 3G service. Sprint does post a theoretical maximum speed of 10 Mbps, but this is not expected for extended periods. Sprint will likely be moving to LTE in the long-term scope of things, but not in the near future.

T-Mobile is currently branding their HSPA+ service as 4G. HSPA is a 3G service and HSPA+ is based on that technology with improvements on speed. This service should be incredibly fast, where available. T-Mobile’s 4G service will be slightly faster than Sprint’s offering. They post a theoretical maximum speed of 21 Mbps, which is more than Sprint’s service. T-Mobile has not announced an upgrade path to LTE, but these speeds will likely suffice for a while.

AT&T now also brands their HSPA+ service as 4G. It previously marketed it as a 3G service, but were forced to market it as 4G when T-Mobile started to. AT&T says that their HSPA+ networks are seeing a maximum of 6 Mbps. This is only the maximum and not the average speeds. These speeds are notably slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network. AT&T has not spent the same investments in upgrading to HSPA+ as T-Mobile because they are going to be rolling out LTE networks beginning in June of this year (2011).

Verizon is the last of the four major networks with a 4G service. They are also the closest to a true 4G service that we have. Verizon’s 4G network uses LTE, which simply stands for Long Term Evolution; creative, huh? Verizon says that LTE will get about 5-12 Mbps average when on a loaded system. Current testers are experiencing numbers in the 20 Mbps, with a maximum peak of 50 Mbps. These speeds are pretty good.

Closing Thoughts

If I were to be buying a 4G device this year, I would choose one that runs on LTE. The protocol is designed to handle network traffic better; yes, this means all that smartphone data. It also provides the best signal with distance from a cell tower. It is also the standard that most international entities are going with.

More Reading

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