PhoneDog 101: 4G basics

Published: July 22, 2013

About a year and a half ago, I remember looking down at my iPhone 4S, waiting for my update from Apple to finish.  When the update finally reached a hundred percent and allowed me to reboot my device, I remember looking down at my AT&T iPhone and realizing that now, out of nowhere, my phone was a 4G capable device.  The "3G" in the left top corner was now a beautiful "4G."

This, of course, didn't make my device any faster or change in any other way besides the number that displayed at the top of my screen, but it did get me thinking.  Over the past few years we have been defining what makes a device 4G or 3G, what is LTE and HSPA+, and why in the world isn't it in my area?  Keeping that in mind, we're looking at 4G - and more specifically, the definition of the term - in this edition of PhoneDog 101.

What can we consider 4G?

Here in the U.S. we can really make it easy on ourselves and consider primarily two types of networks as 4G or fourth generation.  We have the very popular LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks, and then we have the HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access) networks.  While both are considered 4G, one really resonates as a proper fourth generation upgrade from the older 3G networks. 

LTE networks boast higher speeds on average, granting a much cleaner and faster internet experience.  While connected to a 4G LTE network, users can expect download speeds of 10+ Mbps.  With speeds like this users will see a difference in page rendering speed and faster video buffering, along with just faster web speeds in general. 

4G LTE networks are not the only way carriers are giving users faster connections though.  Carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T offer HSPA+ networks in high traffic areas as well.  HSPA+, while technically considered a 4G network, is more like the middle child between the younger sibling 3G and the older brother LTE.  This network can range anywhere 1 to 10 Mbps usually.  I have seen some outliers on the high and low side of the speed spectrum, but ultimately this network is a pretty big improvement over past 3G networks with speeds estimated to be about three times faster.

The big four carrier networks

Verizon's marketing plan is very simple if you have watched any of their television commercials over the past few years.  They will call out anyone who doesn't believe that they have the most LTE coverage in the nation.  While Verizon does have a huge claim on LTE territory in the U.S., as a consumer beware that LTE isn't everywhere and once you drop out of the carrier's LTE coverage area you will be heading straight down to 3G.

On AT&T's network, users typically experience a more layered data network experience.  The nationwide carrier may not have as many LTE networks as its big red rival Verizon, but when users step out of the 4G LTE coverage area they usually experience the available HSPA+ connection, and then finally the 3G (HSPA) network.  This provides a more gradual decline in download and upload speed instead of a steep decrease in quality.  It also means that AT&T technically has the largest 4G network, but less LTE-specific areas in comparison to Verizon.

T-Mobile, much like AT&T, utilizes the HSPA+ technology for their data networks.  While T-Mobile's LTE rollout may be limited for now, the company puts in some time and effort to make sure that download speeds are still fairly respectable across the nation (not to mention their LTE network is growing quickly).  T-Mobile is without a doubt one of the smaller carriers when it comes to the big four, so coverage area will not be as vast in comparison to the other three.  That said, T-Mobile is the only carrier to utilize HSPA+ 42, which offers a theoretical peak of 42 Mbps.  So if you're in a HSPA+ coverage area with AT&T (which caps at 21 Mbps) and T-Mobile (which caps at 42 Mbps), your speeds will generally be faster on T-Mobile.

And finally we come to Sprint.  Sprint has gone and made it difficult for themselves the last couple years when it comes to their data offerings.  The carrier has decided to switch from its previous 4G strategy of utilizing WiMAX technology to conforming to the very popular LTE-type network.  This has put Sprint behind the other two LTE pushers in terms of coverage area.  That being said, Sprint has been rolling out LTE networks all over the country and I expect them to match the coverage areas of the other two eventually, it just might take some time.

When it comes to data networks, carriers are going to offer different experiences in different areas.  Be sure to understand the different types of data networks offered in your area before deciding on a specific carrier.

What kind of data network are you using?  Do you find your speeds satisfactory?  And finally, if it were up to you what kind of changes would you make to data networks available currently?