When the “iPhone 4G” prototype surfaced recently, I got a few questions like, “Really? Apple’s releasing a 4G handset?” (For the record, no. The “4G” moniker that’s often applied to this device refers to it being Cupertino’s fourth generation phone. It has nothing to do with 4G technology.)
But the mistake is easy to make. There’s so much talk of next-generation networks these days. Although many of the carriers have been working on their strategies for a while, CTIA last month was like the big coming-out party. Suddenly 4G was the hot “It” topic on everyone’s lips, and the HTC EVO — the WiMax Android phone Sprint unveiled there — is on a lot of phone fans’ wish lists.
If you’ve been following WiMax or LTE development, testing and deployment, it’s probably really gratifying to see so much attention cast on 4G now (finally). But if you haven’t been, it can be tough to distinguish cellular networks, 3G vs. 4G, and each carrier’s 4G options. But knowing what’s out there and what’s around the corner can only help consumers stay informed on the best buying options. So as a public service, I compiled a basic rundown to help the newbies among us get oriented in the bold, new world we’re embarking on.
This is not a comprehensive manual, nor is it meant to be, but it's more like a cheat sheet of sorts. Hopefully, it will help demystify some of the lingo and confusion surrounding next-generation networks.
(The following is culled from my own knowledge, as well as other research that was compiled. If you spot any inaccuracies or major holes, please hit up the comments below and post your thoughts.)
Okay, so here we go:
You can’t really talk about 4G without talking about 3G first, right?
GSM --> EDGE
EDGE is considered a 2.75G. Not as fast as UMTS (3G)
GSM --> UMTS (3G)
UMTS is a 3G GSM technology (aka 3GSM). GSM and UMTS are not compatible, so some phones have both modes built in. (UMTS is used mostly for data, while GSM is used for voice. Another way to look at this is UMTS is 3G while GPRS is essentially 2.5G)
CDMA --> WCDMA (3G), EVDO (3G), or CDMA2000 (3G)
All three are competing 3G standards for CDMA.
WCDMA (3G) --> HSDPA (3.5G)
HSDPA is like 3.5G technology that came from WCDMA (a 3G standard). So networks need to have WCDMA first before HSDPA. But it’s not the only alternative for high speed data transmission, with competitors like CDMA2000 and WiMax around.
WCDMA (3G) --> HSPA (protocol, a 3G booster)
HSPA boosts data broadband for existing WCDMA networks (to download more data faster over the same networks). It's widely used, since it improves WCDMA's speed and capacity by using that broadband spectrum more efficiently.
WCDMA (3G) --> HSPA+ (protocol, also a 3G booster, but better than HSPA)
HSPA+ uses the spectrum even more efficiently than HSPA. It allows higher peak data rates, fewer lags in data transmission and is more efficient for 3G networks than HSPA. (This is protocol that Tmo is taking up.)
iDEN was developed by Motorola in 1994. An iDEN handset can work as a cell phone, radio, pager, fax, speaker phone, and mobile Internet browser. iDEN handsets can store data from an office, or they can be used to download data from the user's computer.
Interestingly enough, 4G doesn’t really exist as an agreed-upon technology. There’s no single 4G standard that exists in a definitive way yet, like that for 3G. But the term gets bandied around quite a bit, mostly as marketing lingo.
4G: WiMax (Sprint/Clearwire)
The two major 4G systems in the U.S. are WiMax and LTE. WiMax is backed by Clearwire, whose majority owner is Sprint Nextel. The WiMax standard combines the two major players in today’s Internet scene: broadband and wireless. It’s actually considered more of a Wifi evolution, and it’s capable of delivering high-speed broadband via wireless and over long distances.
4G: LTE (Verizon, AT&T)
LTE was developed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), and the name “Long Term Evolution” comes from the idea that this is the next point of progression following GSM (first) to UMTS (second), with LTE being the next step. Though a CDMA carrier, Verizon is pushing forward with LTE. Although AT&T has also indicated interest in it, the company’s efforts for now are more concentrated on HSPA. Given that the latter isn’t exactly racing to the finish line, most of the news surrounding LTE tends to revolve around Verizon.
Big Red has proclaimed it has the largest 3G coverage in the country, and it’s promising that its 4G coverage will be even larger than that.
So that’s it for the basics. If you want to add to the info here, please weigh in by commenting below!
For more on the current status of the major U.S. carriers’ 4G efforts, click to go to The 4G Cheatsheet, part 2: Where we at with all this?