While going through the consumer electronics section of your local mall, you probably notice that there are a lot of catchphrases used by carriers like 4G, 4G LTE, HSPA+, WiMAX and the like. However, 4G and specifically 4G LTE is not quite understood by a lot of people even though it has been one of the most if not the most ubiquitous buzzwords used to sell phones and mobile service.
The upshot is that you should care because 4G LTE is an important if you use a phone and browse the internet with it.
What is 4G?
4G is the fourth generation wireless communications standard which is the successor of third generation standards called 3G.
As defined in 2008 by the International Telecommunications Union-Radio Communications Sector, a branch of the UN which oversees telecommunications standards, 4G should offer up to 100Mbps download speed for mobile applications like phones travelling and 1Gbps for fixed wireless broadband applications.
There are two major competing standards for 4G to date. These are 4G LTE and 4G WiMAX. However, the first release of LTE and WiMAX as well as HSPA+ or Evolved High-Speed Packet Access offered lesser speed than the ITU-R definition of 4G so the body previously ruled that these were not 4G technologies. However, late in 2010, the ITU-R reversed this ruling.
Meanwhile, between 4G WiMAX and 4G LTE, the latter has become the more dominant 4G standard. That is why the four largest carriers in the U.S. are all moving towards 4G LTE. Sprint has a WiMAX network in operation while AT&T and T-Mobile have HSPA+ as part of what they call their 4G network.
At the moment, 4G LTE is looking as the winning standard and is generally perceived to offer higher data speeds.
As for actual real-world use of 4G LTE, HSPA+ and WiMAX, the speeds vary but typically range between 2Mbps and 12Mbps. That’s fast as that is how fast Wi-Fi 802.11b networks operate. Speeds vary though determined by a lot of factors that are considered in how a certain carrier has implemented their network.
4G LTE is short for Long Term Evolution and it is a standard developed by 3GPP. It offers 100Mbps downlink and 50Mbps uplink. Current 4G LTE applications offer up to 30Mbps downlink speed and 15Mbps uplink speed.
4G LTE and 4G WiMAX are not completely incompatible as they both use OFDM (Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) and MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out). Furthermore, they are unlike GSM and CDMA which were complete rivals to each other.
4G WiMAX or Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access theoretically offers up to 30 to 40Mbps of download speed. It was updated in 2011 to offer up to 1Gbps of download speed for fixed applications.
Essentially, WiMAX aims to copy how Wi-Fi works but using a mobile carrier’s network with the 802.16m protocol. A WiMAX tower can offer a signal radius of up to 50km but real world applications are lesser. As for speed, WiMAX can offer up to 128Mbps downlink and 56Mbps uplink. In truth, if offers about 3 to 6Mbps or slightly higher download speeds in current real life applications.
Although HSPA+ was not accepted as 4G at first, it is now because it has reached speeds comparable and sometimes even surpassing 4G LTE and 4G WiMAX. Nonetheless, the fact still remains that HSPA+ is just like supercharged HSPA.
To be clear, this is not a next-generation network but a really, really improved 3G network if you want to split hairs. Nonetheless, AT&T and T-Mobile have HSPA+ networks they brand as 4G.
The downside to this is that even though HSPA+ can reach tremendous speeds comparable to 4G LTE and 4G WiMAX, it still utilizes the same standards and interface of the 3G standard which was first introduced in 2001. Furthermore, HSPA+ does not have the fast response time of 4G LTE and 4G WiMAX.
Think of it this way: it’s like a normal motor fishing boat fitted with the motors of a speed boat. It may reach speedboat speeds but it was based on something not really designed to compete with a speedboat.
Verizon 4G LTE
No matter what AT&T says, Verizon is the network which truly has the largest 4G LTE coverage in the country. AT&T bills its 4G network as “The nation’s largest 4G LTE network” but Verizon now has over 300 cities covered by 4G LTE. The network is pure 4G LTE too and not WiMAX. In contrast, AT&T has 39 markets covered in its 4G networks. We say networks here because AT&T actually has two types.
Meanwhile, Verizon touts its 4G LTE network “America’s fastest 4G network.” According to the mobile network, its 4G LTE network will hold up to high usage and congested areas and maintain speeds of 5 to 12 Mbps. Moreover, the Verizon 4G LTE network has been tested to offer speeds of up to 30mbps so the claim may be actually low.
As for available devices that are covered under this fourth-generation network, Verizon has the following: Galaxy S III, Motorola Droid Razr, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Stratosphere, Motorola Droid 4, LG Spectrum, HTC Rezound, Pantech Breakout, LG Lucid, Motorola Droid Xyboard 8.2, Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1, Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Verizon plans to have more than 400 markets covered by 4G LTE by early 2013.
AT&T 4G LTE
As we’ve said above, AT&T claims to have “The nation’s largest 4G LTE network”. That may be true if you actually look at it in the way the network has defined 4G but its 4G LTE covered areas are still just 39. The mobile carrier has plans to aggressively expand this coverage area though.
AT&T actually defines 4G as HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul. We’ve discussed this earlier in this article but here’s the brief version just in case you don’t remember. HSPA+ or Evolved High-Speed Packet Access is essentially faster 3G. Some call is 3.5G. Enhanced backhaul means that the connections between data centers and cell sites are supposed to be able to handle a higher volume of data. That means less congestion.
AT&T claims that its 4G LTE network is up to 10 times faster than 3G. With 3G providing up to 3Mbps downlink, the networks 4G LTE should offer up to 30Mbps download speeds. Nonetheless, AT&T has actually been tested to work at over 40Mbps in some areas so this claim seems to hold true. It won’t be for all areas though so take it with a grain of salt.
As for devices, AT&T offers the HTC Vivid, Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket, Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and LG Nitro HD, Galaxy S III, Samsung Focus 2, Samsung Galaxy Note, HTC Titan II, Pantech Burst, Nokia Lumia 900, Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate and Sony Xperia ion.
Sprint 4G LTE
Sprint brands its 4G LTE network as “America’s favorite 4G network.” It has yet to rollout this network though. Sprint first tried 4G coverage with WiMAX that was theoretically capable of providing 30-40Mbps of downlink speeds but its implementation of the network with Clearwire has been very slow. Furthermore, 4G LTE is now dominant 4G standard. Its WiMAX network is still in operation in 76 cities though presumably until 4G LTE is rolled out.
Sprint says that they are rolling out their 4G LTE coverage as quickly as possible but meanwhile, its 4G WiMAX network averages a downlink speed for consumers at 3-6Mbps compared to 600Kbps-1.4Mbps on 3G. Peak download speeds is pegged by the carrier to be at more than 10Mbps compared to peak 3G download speeds of up to 3.1Mbps. the 4G LTE Sprint network should have better download and upload speeds when launched.
There’s a limit to this though and that’s up to 5GB of bandwidth. However, you could always purchase additional bandwidth but that’s going to cost you.
Sprint currently has 4G mobile broadband that uses its WiMAX network. It also offers the following 4G phones: Samsung Galaxy S III, Samsung Conquer 4G, Motorola Photon 4G, HTC Evo 3D, Nexus S 4G from Google, Samsung Epic 4G, HTC Evo Shift 4G, HTC One X, and HTC Evo 4G.
T-Mobile 4G LTE
Strictly speaking, T-Mobile is like Sprint which is yet to launch a true 4G LTE network. But like AT&T, the company is touting its HSPA+ network as 4G. Nonetheless, those thinking that the T-Mobile HSPA+ network will be no match to the current 4G LTE networks of Verizon and AT&T should realize that the network offers comparable speeds.
Although no 4G LTE network is present for T-Mobile in the U.S., it’s sister telecoms companies in Austria, Germany and Hungary have launched 4G LTE networks. The HSPA+ network of T-Mobile in the U.S. has been tested to provide over 40Mbps download speeds though so it can run with Verizon and AT&T.
T-Mobile bills its 4G network as “America’s Largest 4G Network,” a title also claimed by AT&T. However, given that its HSPA+, even though a capable HSPA+ network at that, we’re a bit underwhelmed by this claim. The company says it covers 96 percent of the U.S. and is available to over 220 million Americans in 229 markets. T-Mobile says of its 4G network: “It’s faster than AT&T’s nationwide 4G network. It’s faster than Sprint’s 4G network. And more people use it than Verizon’s 4G network. Period.”
Because of this HSPA+ network branded as 4G, the carrier also says it has the most 4G phones offered. Here they are: Samsung Galaxy S III, BlackBerry Bold 9900 4G, HTC One S, LG myTouch, LG myTouch Q, LG myTouch 4G Slide, Samsung Galaxy S II, Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G, Samsung Galaxy S 4G, Samsung Exhibit 4G, HTC Amaze 4G, HTC Radar 4G and Nokia Lumia 710.
What To Choose
It all basically depends on your considerations like budget, quality of coverage for that area, whether you’ll be travelling a lot, the phone you prefer and the like. However, we can’t wait until true 4G LTE, a network which comes close to the promised speed as defined by the ITU, is rolled out. Any of these four major carriers will win hands down if they’re the first to offer quality and true 4G LTE in the near future.
The bottom line is that 4G LTE is the future for mobile carriers or a big part of it. It’s the standard which telecoms companies will be operating in which includes how fast data transfers from the internet to your device and vice versa. Of course, there are also the issues of backhaul, latency and the like but 3GPP and other standards-setting bodies actually also tackles this with its releases for LTE standards.
If you own a phone or even a fixed broadband internet connection, you should care about 4G LTE and how it is achieved and branded by the carriers.
Image 1 from wiccked on Flickr (CC)