The number “4” must stand for “confusion.” The term “4G” has been a hot topic in the cellular industry for the past year and there certainly has been a lot of confusion about it. In this brief article, we will explain what 4G is, why it’s desirable and what you need to do to get it.
First, “4G” stands for “fourth-generation,” meaning it is the fourth generation of cellular networking technology. Just for the record, here are the previous generations:
1G: Analog and digital voice-grade connections;
2G: Medium-speed digital connections in the range of 150-500 kilobits per second (kbps);
3G: High-speed digital connections from 500 kbps to 3 megabits per second (Mbps).
The signal level on a Sprint Android phone is shown under the yellow arrow. If it is a 4G phone and you are covered by 4G service, you will see a “4G” in this location.
In the U.S. wireless industry, 4G is considered to be connection speeds that are consistently above 3 Mbps, typically reaching 5-10 Mbps. There is an international definition for 4G and some people are quick to point out that the U.S. carriers that are advertising products as “4G” are not actually meeting the technical standard for 4G. This may be true, but it doesn’t take into account the experiences of users who see dramatic differences when they go from a device that tops out at 1 Mbps to one that reaches 10 Mbps. To those users, 4G is a new world – and the next generation – of technology.
Who has 4G?
At the moment, all four major national U.S. carriers have networks that they advertise as 4G, and a couple of regional carriers do as well. Sprint was first out of the gate about two years ago with a technology called WiMax, which is similar in function to the WiFi wireless network you have at your home but works over a MUCH wider area. Sprint initially offered WiMax in the form of broadband cards that connect to computers (these are often called “air cards”).
In July 2010, Sprint launched two highly successful 4G phones: the HTC EVO 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G. The EVO 4G hit the market first and was a sensational seller for Sprint. The Epic 4G followed closely and set the standard for phones with slide-out keyboards. Sprint today sells a wide range of air cards, mobile 4G WiFi adapters and cell phones for its 4G WiMax network.
T-Mobile jumped on the 4G bandwagon in October 2010 with the T-Mobile G2 (made by HTC), then followed soon after with the T-Mobile myTouch 4G (also made by HTC). Both these phones use a variation of T-Mobile’s GSM network called HSPA+. The G2 and myTouch 4G have a maximum theoretical network data speed of 14.4 Mbps, and typically get 5-8 Mbps. The new Samsung Galaxy S 4G for T-Mobile uses an even faster variant of HSPA+ that tops out at 21 Mbps.
Verizon Wireless announced a different 4G technology called LTE (for “Long Term Evolution”), and began shipping LTE air cards in November 2010. The first phone using Verizon’s LTE was the HTC ThunderBolt, which launched to a lot of pent-up demand in March 2011. Technically, LTE is an advanced version of GSM that is not backwards-compatible with GSM. LTE can routinely provide connection speeds up to 15 Mbps and some have experienced speeds faster than that.
The signal level on a T-Mobile Android phone is shown under the yellow arrow. This phone is receiving 2G (or “EDGE”) service right now, but it will show “4G” if the phone has a 4G connection.
Not wishing to be left out, AT&T recently started advertising its upgraded GSM network as 4G, much like T-Mobile has done, and the company is now selling 4G phones and air cards. However, AT&T has announced that it plans to install an LTE 4G network, although it won’t be operational until the end of 2012 at the earliest.
What’s so important about 4G?
Once upon a time, all we used cell phones for was to make phone calls. Now we send texts, keep up with friends on Facebook, surf the web and watch YouTube videos, and this takes data. Lots of data. 3G networks can deliver data at a respectable speed of 1-3 Mbps, which is perfectly good for “liking” your friends’ latest photos on Facebook and watching a viral video of a fat guy falling into a pool on YouTube. But who has been satisfied with “perfectly good”? We want things NOW, not five seconds from now, and that’s where 4G comes in.
With 4G, you can start watching a YouTube video instantly. Jumping to a complicated web site with lots of complex features takes a couple of seconds, not the long delay it used to take with 3G. Best of all, 4G phones that have built-in WiFi hotspot functionality can share the 4G bandwidth with several friends – and everyone will get a connection equivalent to that of a fast 3G network.
What about the Apple iPhone 4? Is that 4G?
Talk about confusion! The Apple iPhone 4, now available on both Verizon and AT&T, is not a 4G device. The iPhone connects to AT&T’s and Verizon’s 3G networks, not the companies’ 4G networks. The iPhone 4 is the fourth generation of Apple’s iconic smartphone and it happened to be launched at the same time Sprint debuted the HTC EVO 4G. The EVO 4G is a true 4G device and the iPhone 4 grabbed onto the EVO’s 4G coattails and confused many people into thinking that the iPhone 4 was also 4G. It is not.
There are now many rumors about the next Apple iPhone, which many refer to as the iPhone 5. As this is being written, there is no confirmation that the iPhone 5 will have 4G connectivity.
The signal level on a Verizon Android phone is shown under the yellow arrow. If it is a 4G phone and you are covered by 4G service, you will see a “4G” in this location.
How fast is 4G, really?
With a 4G phone in a good 4G reception area, you can expect to see download data speeds from 5-12 Mbps. This speed is affected by location and by other network activity, so having more people using their 4G phones will make your 4G a little slower. At the moment, Sprint has the most 4G users, and they generally get network data speeds from 5-8 Mbps. Verizon just brought its 4G network on line and has fewer users, so they are enjoying wide-open bandwidth with speeds from 6-15 Mbps. That will probably come down as Verizon’s LTE network gets loaded with more customers.
AT&T and T-Mobile devices typically get 4G speeds from 5-10 Mbps, with occasional faster bursts. Both carriers are upgrading their networks for the highest possible theoretical HSPA+ speed, which is 42 Mbps.
Is 4G everywhere?
No. All the carriers have existing 3G networks that cover most of the US, and 4G is being built on top of that. The carriers are concentrating on locations where they can get the most subscribers, so they are building out in big cities first. If you live in New York City, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Denver, you can get 4G from a variety of carriers. If you live in Mountainside, Idaho, you will probably have to wait months (or even years) to get 4G.
What comes next?
As sure as spring follows winter, there will be a technology after 4G and it will probably be called 5G. Exactly what form it will take and how it will be implemented in phones is unknown, but one thing is sure: It will be pretty darn exciting when it arrives.