The Spotty State of 4G
"4G" is a tech buzzword that has generated a lot of hype, and the faster data speeds it promises are exciting. But the problems experienced by big-name companies in rolling out their 4G networks and devices speak to the current spotty state of the technology. Should you the consumer want to get in on 4G yet, or is it best to let things shake out first?
AT&T is the latest company to have to deal with 4G issues. Owners of the new Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone had filed complaints with the U.S. Better Business Bureau about the slower-than-expected data speeds, accusing AT&T of capping data speeds. It turns out that AT&T had indeed not activated the faster speed capability on these devices, apparently per technical difficulties.
"We currently are performing the testing and preparations necessary to ensure that, when we turn this feature on, you will continue to have a world class experience," according to an AT&T Customer Appeals statement.
Verizon has encountered similar problems. The company announced it would offer 10 4G devices this year, including the Motorola Xoom, the first 4G tablet available in the U.S. However, Verizon began selling the tablet earlier this month without activating its 4G capability.
Verizon informed Xoom owners that they will have the opportunity to upgrade their tablets around May 26, about 90 days after the Xoom was first released for sale. Getting the upgrade requires owners to send the product back to Motorola, and then the company will need about six days to perform the upgrades and ship the tablet back to customers.
All this does sound like a hassle for the consumer. So what advantages are in fact offered by 4G?
The terms 3G and 4G refer to third and fourth generation ("G") of wireless networks, respectively. The much-touted faster speeds of 4G apply only to data transfer only, which is what's happening when apps, photos and videos upload or download from the Internet to your phone or other wireless device.
So how much faster is 4G ? No one seems to agree. The International Telecommunications Union, the organization which set the standard for 3G that remains consistent across network providers, defines 4G as offering download speeds of at least 100 megabytes per second. No U.S. provider who claims to offer 4G service, however, comes close to that speed, and the successor networks to 3G are simply being branded as 4G.
Is 4G more reliable? No. 4G service does not mean a stronger signal between your phone and a cellular network base station. If you don't get a reliable phone signal at certain locations today, 4G won't make a difference tomorrow.
To make the situation even more confusing, providers use different technologies to produce faster speeds.
Providers, networks and devices update
To use the newest 4G (or "3G plus") services, you must have a 4G-capable device. Very few 4G devices are available at this time, but here is a rundown of what's out there and is on the way.
Sprint began rolling out 4G service in selected metropolitan markets almost a year ago. Sprint's service is based on Clearwire's WiMax technology. Sprint's download speeds have been recorded at between three and six megabytes per second. Handset-wise, Sprint offers the HTC Evo, Evo Shift and the Samsung Epic in the 4G department.
Verizon, for its part, is further building out its LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology that it began offering last November. To date, the company has launched 4G service in 38 markets to 110 million potential customers. Verizon has said it will cover two-thirds of the U.S. population by mid-2012. Verizon currently offers no 4G phones, but maintains that the 4G-capable HTC Thunderbolt and Motorola Droid Bionic will be released soon.
Verizon's speeds seem to be about twice as fast as Sprint's; Verizon's own tests show download speeds vary between seven and 12 megabytes per second, which have been confirmed by third parties.
AT&T, meanwhile, has upgraded its 3G networks to HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access), which is a faster 3G-based network. The company plans to begin developing an LTE network later this year. AT&T has begun referring to its HSPA+ network as a 4G network to keep pace with competitors. AT&T offers the Atrix 4G and the HTC Inspire on the 3G-on-steroids, HSPA+ network.
Like AT&T, T-Mobile has begun upgrading its 3G network to HSPA+ and also now refers to its faster network as 4G. T-Mobile offers download speeds between three and seven megabytes per second, comparable to Sprint. T-Mobile sells the HTC myTouch, Samsung Galaxy S and HTC-made Google G2. It also offers the Dell Streak 7-inch tablet on its HSPA+ network.
Like any connection, other variables might affect speed, so your actual speed will likely vary based on network load, your location and other factors.
Type "A" only
If you use a smartphone or another device for transferring large amounts of data and you simply cannot wait an extra minute, you could consider upgrading to 4G service when it becomes available in your area through your carrier.
Eventually, all providers will offer faster data speeds, but it will take at least three years for Verizon to finish its build-out of LTE, which is the fastest technology currently available. Of note: Verizon does have more than a year head-start on AT&T, the only other provider with LTE plans.
In summary, the infrastructure for 4G is underdeveloped, the device options are slim and speeds are not close to what they should be. Perhaps the best advice we can give: Relax, it's too early to worry about 4G.