In Part 1, I listed several key 3G and 4G technologies. But those terms don’t mean much without some context, so here’s a quick look at where our Fab Four (major) carriers are with their 4G efforts.
If you’re wondering, “What’s the fuss over 4G?”, here’s the short answer: Data speeds that are as fast or faster than home cable or DSL, and carriers betting that we want that on our smartphones or mobile hotspots.
You could call it a “data race,” as most of our familiar cellular providers are speeding forward into 4G territory. The two big technologies in it are WiMax (via Sprint) and LTE (via Verizon). While Big Red is trying to bolster 3G coverage while prepping for 4G at the same time, Sprint seems to be throwing all its eggs into the 4G basket, surging forward like gangbusters.
Last month, Verizon announced that its 4G LTE network would provide 4G access to one-third of America by the end of 2010, and that this amount of 4G coverage would be double that in 15 months. And Big Red’s CTO, Dick Lynch, recently added that the company would launch LTE in 25 to 30 markets in the fourth quarter of this year. (An actual Verizon-branded LTE handset isn’t expected until 2011.)
AT&T on the other hand, which is “kinda sorta” on board with LTE, doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. At CTIA, where 4G was all the buzz, it hardly mentioned it. When the carrier was asked point blank, the only statement was that it plans to conduct testing in two cities by the close of 2010. (As far as deployment is concerned, late 2011 is the expected timeframe.) For now, AT&T’s focus has been on maximizing its current network by focusing on the software and hardware roll out for HSPA 7.2 (for 7.2 mbps download speeds).
As for WiMax, the biggest downside is that it is not widely available yet. But, says Sprint, there’s a major initiative underway to expand its 4G network. The plans center on making it available nationwide by the end of the year. (There's also a new WiMax2 Collaborative Initiative brewing. For more on that, check out Ari’s post on the topic here.)
Current 3G networks offer download speeds around 1–2 Mbps (which is decent for web browsing). Downloading big files or videos often need more, though, and 4G (as well as the 3.5G HSPA+) could jack that up quite a lot.
Here are some theoretical peak speeds:
HSPA+: 42Mbps DL and 23 Mbps UL.
WiMAX: 75Mbps DL and 30Mbps UL.
LTE: 300Mbps DL and 75 Mbps UL.
Sounds great, but these are PEAK speeds, and theoretical ones at that. This means it wouldn’t come up for an average user on any consistent basis. The average (non peak) theoretical speeds would look more like this:
HSPA+ (Tmo): 21Mbps download speeds
WiMax (Sprint): 3–6Mbps DL (with bumps up to 10 Mbps)
LTE (Verizon, AT&T): 8-12 Mbps speeds
This just goes to show that just because something has the 4G moniker doesn’t mean it’s faster than 3.5G.
Tmo, for example, seems intent on HSPA+. Sure, LTE might be a natural progression for them, but then again, why should it hurry? HSPA+ can sometimes achieve even faster speeds than 4G. (According to Tmo's PR firm: "...when you look at the evolutionary path for HSPA+, there's an opportunity to upgrade the network to even faster speeds in the future — 42 Mbps, 84 Mbps, or even 168 Mbps — so there's a roadmap to match LTE over a significant amount of time.")
According to tests at CTIA, T-Mo was getting 8 Mbps down in live tests of the network, which is close to Sprint's theoretical max on WiMax. (And it also ran faster than WiMax in Sascha Segan’s analysis for PC Mag. Click the link to read more.)
Confused yet? Everyone’s hyping their 4G tech, and boasting theoretical speeds. But real-word tests show that those speeds don’t always bear out. As if to complicate matters more, HSPA+ may be zippier, but there’s also a potential downside: maximum caps. It relies on 3G technology, and those networks are pretty bogged down, so much so that there’s usually a limit.
The major buzz, as far as 4G is concerned, has been surrounding Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G. It’s got Android, WiMax, a beast of a spec list, and a summer launch date (rumored to be early June). The EVO made huge waves when it was unveiled, and many pundits think this smartphone’s entry — and the demand inspired by its advanced specs, like the ones below — was responsible for accelerating the race to 4G.
Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the handset's inability to do voice and data simultaneously. The device uses WiMax for data where available, but otherwise it's CDMA EVDO Rev A. for voice and data, and CDMA can't do both. So, as HTC indicated, it may not be able to do voice and data at once, but it’s not a hardware limitation. If it matters to you, stay tuned — Sprint is still conducting some tests on this.
So it seems none of these technologies are quite seamless yet. But we’ve been hearing about 4G for so long now, it’s interesting to see the race actually heating up now. And by this time next year (or more likely, in the following couple of years), we could all be sitting around, talking about 3G like our parents talk about rotary dialers or fax machines.