These days more and more people are to be talking about 4G Mobile Broadband for their smartphones and hotspots. 4G mobile has become kind of of a mainstream term, and more and more folks are using 4G terminology like “LTE” and “HSPA+”. Knowing keywords and buzzterms are cool and all, but do you know what 4G's benefits mean to you?
If you haven’t jumped into the waters of 4G yet, you may be wondering what all the 4G fuss is about and if 4G is really worth it - or perhaps you've decided to invest in a 4G smartphone or mobile hotspot, but are not exactly sure which type of 4G technology or mobile provider to go with. No Worries - 4G coverage is getting better and better every month, and regardless of the carrier's network, you can be sure to have a significant boost over 3G. Here's a quick crash course on 4G to get you up to speed...
The Evolution of Wireless 4G
Starting around 2010, 4G wireless broadband came online for all the "Big 4" American mobile providers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, albeit to vastly different extents.
Historically, understanding mobile data has been pretty easy. When 3G networks started hitting the mainstream around 2007, smartphone users could immediately see a huge increase in download and upload speed over the former 2G technology.
Although it may seem ridiculous now, when looking back, the earliest mobile broadband, 2G offered speeds of about 0.15 to 0.25 Mbps, or 150 to 200 Kbps - this was hardly enough bandwidth to stream high-quality audio over a service like Pandora, let alone online video.
When 3G came along with it's peak download speeds of about 1.5 to 3.1 Megabits per second, a whole new world opened up to the average smartphone user. The new possibilities with high speed mobile data seemed limitless (remember, this was around 5 years ago). 3G technology also was fairly black and white then- a device was either 3G or wasn't, there was not much opportunity in "playing around" with the term 3G. Even though there were two types of 3G (CMDA and HSPA) there was not much material differences between the major carriers 3G offerings. If you got a good signal, you were pretty much good to go.
One of the biggest watershed moments in the evolution of 3G was Apple's iPhone 3 introduction in 2007. Within a few weeks after the 3G compatible iPhone release, 3G data use began to grow exponentially. The word of mouth and press that was associated with the iPhone significantly contributed to additional growth of even more non-Apple 3G enabled devices .Although the iPhone was limited to AT&T's 3G network during those years, many wireless industry authorities consider the iPhone3 to be the single biggest catalyst in sparking demand for 3G broadband among all wireless providers, even those who did not carry the Apple iPhone.
For the next few years, the massive demands for high speed wireless data continued to grow. As you might imagine, the public's appetite for 3G became greater and greater during the 2000's. Unfortunately, the more their appetite increased, and especially since the advent of higher quality HD video was now coming online, and new devices like high-resolution tablet PCs would make the mobile experience infinitely more enjoyable when experienced over a high-speed, something that 3G could not offer.
As you might imagine, the next step in this progression was “4G” technology, a.k.a. “fourth generation” wireless. When it came time agree what exactly 4G was, and how it was to be built out, that's where things started to get complicated. Although 4G started on a somewhat even keel around 2009, it quickly for in two distinctly different technologies and paths with the four major carriers. To build the 4G nationwide network that was on the scale of 3G networks at the time could cost upward of $25-$30 billion just for one carrier. As you might imagine financial constraints and the speed at which the networks could be built out was a big factor in determining what type of technology would get adopted by which company. Much like the ruckus over technology standards throughout the years, be it VHS vs. Betamax or BluRay vs. HD-DVD, every company wants to clean theirs is the investment for their customers to make.
Unfortunately it is the customers who lose out most of the time on standards battles that emerge with competing technologies like 4G wireless. Because there is not a solid definition of 4G, as there was with 3G, by the international group that self-governance the major wireless carriers, 4G became more of a marketing term and technology in itself. Believe it or not, the governing organization of the wireless carriers simply agreed that when 4G technology should offer a “meaningfully higher degree of speed and user experience”.
In the past, when comparing one 3G network to another, basically speed and coverage were the main comparison points. This made it simple compare phones and networks. How about with 4G? Not so much anymore. This time around there are so many more factors that need to be taken into account such as the current plate footprint versus the anticipated rollout in the future, maximum theoretical speeds versus actual real-life speeds, and which devices are compatible with the different types of 4G technologies (by the way, there are 3 three different 4G technologies out there today)
4G: Comparing Apples to Oranges?
Although it is an exciting technological advancement, 4G makes the waters a bit murkier. No more simple comparisons and choices. Interestingly, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile all have their own different definitions of “4G”, as does the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
In technical jargon , the ITU explains that 4G is a connection capable of up “to 100Mbps” (hmm…is the emphasis on “up to”?) with high mobility (location should not matter) and including up to 1Gbps within Wi-Fi range. As you might expect, what looks good on paper and in books, does not always turn out that way in the real world.
When you and I use our 4G phones and mobile hotspots, there’s not much you’ll actually find in common when comparing to the “theoretical specifications” of today’s 4G networks . The only aspect these cell provider companies can seem agree upon regarding 4G is that the number “4” comes after the number “3” (duh!) That is not much help to the lay person who is trying to make a wise financial choice for their own needs. Since the definition of 4G is confusing and not straight across the board, we’ll try to shed some light and practical exampled on this topic.
Sprint’s version of 4G broadband technology is their mobile WiMax 4G, which is the oldest currently deployed 4G technology. WiMax sports peak theoretical data rates running at 128Mbps downstream and 56 Mbps upstream (Holy Cow! you might say,,,well, hold your horses). In the real world, expect download speeds ranging from 2 Mbps on the low side, up to about 15 Mbps in best cases. Upload speeds on WiMax are not all that great. Most users achieve only 1 – 3 Mbps upload speeds, even with excellent signal strength.
The Latest and Greatest: 4G LTE
Long Term Evolution or LTE for short, is latest and greatest 4G technology that Verizon would seem to like the public to think is their technology (it isn’t). Theoretical maximum speeds of LTE run at 100 Mbps downstream and 50 Mbps upstream. Because of distinct engineering differences in LTE versus that of WiMAX and HSPA+ (it's two competing technologies), LTE offers speeds that are legitimately up to 25 Mb per second (Holy Cow! For real…) even on congested networks, LTE will allow users to download at rates of upward of 10 Mb per second, which is nearly as fast as a large percentage of homes with wired broadband nationwide. The downside of LTE is that it's only available where the new 4G LTE infrastructure has been built out, and because of this, the availability on generally limited in the United States.
Bringing up the Rear: 4G HSPA+ and WiMax
T-Mobile and AT&T both have HSPA+ 4G, which is short for Evolved High-Speed Packet Access. Many users and professionals in the wireless industry consider HSPA+ to be a technology that is only marginally compatible to the idea of what a 4G network is expected to be. There is some truth to the fact that HSPA+ it is really just a souped-up version 3G. In fact, some refer to it as (half jokingly I imagine) “3.5G” - since it's kind of a combination of both 3G and 4G. (a friend of mine calls it "half-fast 3G") In some ways, HSPA+ technology can be thought of like cars on the highway. 3G might be imagined as a four-lane highway with a 55 MPH speed limit. HSPA+ 4G is like a two-lane highway with a 120 MPH speed limit - its true that traffic is going to be a moving a lot faster on Highway 4G, but at the end of the he day, the same number of cars traveling from point A to point B on Highway 4G will be nearly the same as did on Highway 3G. To accommodate more and more drivers who expect to get to their destination as fast as possible , the HSPA+ solution is to build more and more 120MPH two-lane highways - You need more and more high speed highways to accommodate the large number of drivers - this is much like the dilemma facing carriers today who are trying to roll out more robust 4G HSPA+ networks in place of their older 3G HSPA versions.
Sprint Mobile Broadband Devices and 4G WiMax: Arriving to the Party a Bit Too Early or Way Too Late?
Sprint was the first of the major cell phone carriers to commercially roll out 4G coverage. Due to their seniority with 4G, they have a very consistent and reliable 4G service where it’s available (“Available” being the key). Sprint WiMAX 4G is alive and in production in many major cities and metri areas in North America. Unfortunately, “major city” is not all that helpful if you're living in a suburb area with no WiMAX coverage. As of Spring 2012, WiMAX is available in just over 80 metropolitan areas and cities in North America. The only way to know for sure if Sprint WiMAX 4G is available in your area is to check the coverage map on Sprint.com - because WiMax 4G is a pretty old technology, Sprint has basically considered it to be “end-of-life” - so if it's not in the location that you want to be now, you can forget about it in their future. Surprisingly, Sprint will admit that they are the slowest of the three major 4G wireless providers. But to their credit, Sprint is also the only network that will directly advertise their speeds and not just the peak data rates.
Comparing Sprint 4G Devices
As far as devices, Sprint offers Smartphones, USB modems, 4G-ready netbooks and two of its own branded mobile hotspots which they have named the Sprint Overdrive and the Sprint Express. The Sprint Overdrive is Sprint's “legacy” mobile broadband device that has been manufactured by Sierra Wirkless for more than 3 years.It offers only Sprint 3G and 4G WiMax connectivity, not the new upcoming 4G LTE. The Sprint Express is an inside out update and replacement to the the hugely popular Novatel Wireless 4G MiFi 4082. The Sprint Express mobile hotspot is a WiMax compatble device, and offers a host of technical improvements, like better signal strength and battery life when compared to the hotspot that the Express replaces, The MiFi 4082, a poplar device that was discontinued in 2012. This
If you are someone who owns multiple devices, this will be a convenience for you. A 4G mobile hotspot also makes connecting to a network easier since you can connect to Wi-Fi without the use of a connectivity system. Another benefit to using Sprint is that Sprint reportedly has the best device technical support of all three major cell phone networks, as rated by Consumers Digest in 2012.
Sprint Data Plan Costs and Mobile Broadband Data Limits
Using Sprint for your wireless 4G data provider will start at 60 bucks a month for the basics which will give you 5GB of bandwidth per month.. Depending on the different services and features, Sprint runs about ten dollars higher than Verizon per month and about twenty dollars higher than T-Mobile on a per-month basis. However, if you anticipate using more than 5GB per month, Sprint is also unique in that they are the only company to offer a 12GB month plan (AT&T maxes out at 5GB for $50, and Verizon 10GB for $80) Sprint offers their 12GB plan for $79.99 per month.
4G Data Overage Fees for Mobile Broadband.
Contrary to popular beliefs, the big four mobile providers DO NOT offer unlimited 4G data plans for mobile broadband devices like mobile hotspots and 4G modems. The closest thing to “unlimited” data is Sprint, which offers unlimited 3G/4G for smartphones only. In October 2011 rescinded all "unlimited data" mobile broadband plans, even for current contract customers.
AT&T and Verizon are nearly identical in their data overage policy and associated costs. Each 1GB over the contract monthly limit is charged $10. There is no partial charges that would be in favor of the customer. A customer who goes 1.01 GB over limit and another 1.99 GB over, would both be assessed $10 per GB, or $20 each. Sprint’s overage charge is great in some ways, and some would say horrible in others. Sprint charge 5 cents per MB (1000MB =1GB). Sprint's incremental charges are great for customers with moderate use that would typically bring them slightly over their limit. Going over the limit by 50 MB on Spint's network results in a modest charge $2.50 - not too bad. However, 1 GB over limit is going to set you back a whopping 50 bucks. Heaven forbid you forget about your usage while watching a streaming Hi-Def movie for couple of hours. It's not uncommon to rack up three gigabytes per hour while streaming 1080P HD video, so in a case like this you’re looking at a cringing $150 (ouch!) in overage charges only
The Newest Generation of 4G: Long Term Evolution (LTE)
Verizon is the only company out of all of the major wireless providers to legitimately have had a nationwide 4G LTE high-speed wireless network in place by 2011. As of Q1 2012, Verizon has LTE operating in approximately 245 metro areas in United States, and claims to have approximately 190 million potential customers under signal coverage, or about 60% of the entire US population – men, women, seniors, and kids.
Right from the start, Verizon's LTE network offered upload and download speeds never before seen for the vast majority of wireless consumers. Truly incredible download speeds upward of 20 to 25 Mbps, and 10 to 15 Mbps upload speeds are not unheard of in a number of installed areas.By way of comparison, 25 Mpbs means you can download a 5MB song (average for a 4 minute song) in under 3 seconds!
Because Verizon had the advantage of rolling out 4G LTE on largely vacant network, the sparsely populated network’s bandwidth surely contributed to these massive speeds, but even upward of two years in, the speeds have not diminished all that much, leaving us to believe that the bandwidth potential of LTE networks is truly impressive, even for the foreseeable future.
With the April 2012 introduction of the new iPad for Verizon 4G LTE , many folks got their first taste of 4G LTE. For those who had known nothing but marginal 3G speeds for the last couple of years, the 4G LTE seemed almost too good to be true.
For all the great feedback and tremendous enthusiasm 4G LTE provided to these new users, oddly the one negative that seem to prevail was the fact that it was comical or almost “too fast for its own good “. Message boards were filling up complaining subscribers, argusing that they were burning through their 5 GB data plan in a matter of hours, something that they expected to last them all month. It's kind of like complaining that a Ferrari is too fast, because all of a sudden they're getting more speeding tickets than you got in your entire month - as if the car was to blame!
Let's not forget our old reliable friend, T-Mobile.
T-Mobile seems to be stretching the definition of what their 4G exactly is, and why it;s better then everyone's else.. Some even say that HSPA+, or Evolved HSPA, is merely an upgrade to the 3G networks of Verizon and Sprint. To T-Mobile’s credit, HSPA+ is said to have significantly faster speeds. However, adding to the confusion around 4G is the fact that real world testing revealed that HSPA+ had the slowest speeds. If you are a current T-Mobile customer and considering jumping ship, also consider that upgrading to 4G is a pretty good value for your money. After all not everyone needs upward of 20 Mb per second constant mobile broadband download speeds. Believe it or not, give a “typical web user” a reliable and steady speed of four or five megabits per second, and that's enough to create the perception of speed and reliability.Unlike some of the hardcore LTE geeks, most folks aren't firing up their Speedtest.net broadband performance tool twenty time a day to see how many megabits are squeezing by any given time during the day or night.
T-Mobile Cost and Data Limits
If you are with T-Mobile you may already know that you can get a plan with 250 Mbps for a frugal twenty-five dollars a month. A family plan package with T-Mobile starts at about forty dollars per month. With this price, T-Mobile is the cheapest per month by about ten dollars. If you exceed your limit of 5GB with your T-Mobile plan, you are not cut off, they simply slow down your speed. Unfortunately, the “slow down” is actually a bandwidth throttle that balances your connection from 4G to 2G, which is about a 90 to 95% reduction in speed (ouch!). For users who don't want to spend any additional money overage charges this is a great feature however for (likely the majority) folks who occasionally run over there monthly data limit simply have no option to sustain their former speed. The option to pay for overage fees doesn't even exist, the only thing you can do is wait around till the next billing cycle for your 4G speed to reset. This could be dangerously frustrating business users who find themselves trapped into slow motion to 2G world of wireless went out on business trips or other critical situations when T-Mobile's severely reduced 2G speeds simply will not cut it.
If budget is the most important factor in choosing a cell phone and 4G network, then budge-friendly T-Mobile may be the best choice for you. T-Mobile is also one of the few wireless providers to offer a nice wide selection of prepaid 4G mobile broadband packagesfor their mobile hotspots and cellular modems. Prepaid plans are generally couple of bucks more than their contract counterparts, but can be had for around $50 a month for 3 GB allotment of high-speed 4G data.
If 4G coverage is what you are looking for, T-Mobile’s legitimately very large nationwide coverage for HSPA+ 4G may be the ticket. T-Mobile calls themselves “America’s Largest 4G Network”, however it seems they are about on par with AT&T, especially since both networks are HSPA+. It all depends on how coverage is measured, either by square miles of single coverage or by number of people under signal, when comparing actually has the largest 4G network: T-Mobile or AT&T
As with all the other carriers, T-Mobile is expanding their coverage and is expected to have much greater nationwide 4G coverage in 2013. A map on the T-Mobile website will even show you what areas coverage are “coming soon”. This makes it easier for potential and existing customers to see what is to come. With the right internet search skills you can find this information on your own, but T-Mobile gets bonus customer service points as it puts this info in an easily accessible place on their site. Unfortunately T-Mobile does not have plans for widescale, nationwide implementation of 4G LTE until at least 2014. With the transitional nature of 4G technologies, and given the fact that T-Mobile does not yet have been operating 4G LTE network, it may be best to take advantage of their month-to-month prepaid data service, which is actually quite reasonable and competitive in terms of coverage and value. This way you don't lock yourself into two years of substandard (meaning it’s not LTE) 4G technology
T-Mobile's 4G Devices
When it comes to mobile broadband, sadly T-Mobile has one of the smallest selections of products that take advantage of their 4G technology. T-Mobile currently offers only one mobile hotspot device, a fairly decent unit manufactured by ZTE wireless, as well as one T-Mobile branded USB 4G cellular modem that operates on their HSPA+ 4G Network. It seems that the uncertainty of a possible tie up on merger with AT&T, which was derailed last year, may have put some of the fast-track 4G technology on the slow track for T-Mobile for the time being.
AT&T’s Dual Layered 4G Technology: The Best of Both Worlds?
AT&T can be commended for its marketing genius when it comes to selling and promoting its 4G wireless service. Up until 2011, AT&T was heavily betting on in investing in its 4G HSPA+ network. Around this time Verizon stole the thunder with their rollout of 4G LTE nationwide.
AT&T realized it had to get on the ball, and ramp up its effort to exploit the new 4G LTE technology ASAP. To offer a middle ground to customers who wanted the exceptional performance of LTE (which AT&T only just started building out) , but expected the extremely wide nationwide coverage of AT&T's HSPA+ 4G service, they marketed and sold devices on the premise of being “Dual 4G” - meaning that they would have built-in tape ability for 4G LTE, as well as HPSA coverage+.
AT&T was the first to market devices such as the Elevate 4G mobile hotspot, as well as some new smartphones that also took advantage of the dual 4G technology. Customers can immediately benefit from the wide service area of their slower 4G offering, while being able to take advantage of the ever-growing 4G LTE is popping up in more and more cities every month.
This multi-layered 4G technology is something that Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile cannot currently compete with (although Sprint is starting dual 4G in 2013) . Customers on any of the other major cell phone carries will see a huge drop off in speed when they leave an LTE area, since they'll be bouncing down to a 3G signal, which is on average 5 to 10 times slower. Using both technologies, AT&T provides far greater coverage and faster speeds for their customers.
Just like Verizon, AT&T boasts that their new 4G LTE coverage will be capable of speeds 10 times that of their 3G network. AT&T continues to roll out and improve their 4G LTE coverage across the nation, with the majority of areas seeing 4G LTE coverage by the end of 2013. They also offer several 4G ready Smartphones, including Samsung and HTC phones, Blackberries and the iPhone 4S (although it's not an LTE device, the iPhone 5 is rumored to be)
So, what is right for you?
Only you can decide what is right for you in a phone, carrier and coverage. With so many options and different definitions, it can be quite confusing to decide on the carrier and service that is right for you. You may want to think about what is most important to you with your phone service, speed, cost coverage, best device options or value.
To quickly recap some of the major points to remember with today's 4G offerings from the big four:
- Verizon 4G LTE is currently, and will likely remain to be so in the near future, the largest 4G LTE network. It is also the fastest 4G service available when the size of the network and number of potential users is factored in. Verizon also has one of the simplest and fairest 4G LTE tiered billing models. Data delivered over both 3G and 4G networks is basically priced at $10 per gigabyte, even for overuse rates. Because Verizon got a head start over their competitors by at least a year in deploying LTE, they tend to have more LTE phones and mobile broadband devices that are specifically compatible with 4G LTE.
- AT&T has a unique combination of “dual 4G” technology, which allows users to take advantage of their older, slower 4G service known as HSPA+ that is available in an extremely wide area throughout North America. AT&T is also rolling out a 4G LTE network that is as fast as Verizon's, but only a fraction of its size at present. The dual 4G offering allows customers to experience the wide coverage of its legacy 4G offering, while at the same time promising to take advantage of the latest and greatest 4G LTE in the very near future. Arguably, it's a better combination than the 4G LTE + 3G fallback, that Verizon offers.
- T-Mobile advantages in 4G do not necessarily come from technology, but rather from a financial cost perspective. T-Mobile has the least-fast (hate to use the term “slowest”) 4G network overall out of its competitors, and to say that it's 4G network is the “largest” is a play on words that is kind of stretching the truth. They also offer one of the most restrictive policies on data usage for their 4G networks that simply do not allow any overuse beyond the agreed monthly amount. The good news is that T-Mobile offers some great lower priced 4G data plans in the hands of customers that normally may not have been able to afford 4G. T-Mobile also has a nice selection of prepaid, no-contract 4G plans and devices, including mobile hotspots and smart phones that its competitors presently don't have.
- Sprint is a bit of an unusual player when it comes to 4G. Their WiMAX 4G service has been around for close to four years but due to financial constraints and technical limitations, Sprint was really never able to deploy WiMAX in the area throughout the country that would be consistent of a true nationwide network. At present its available only about 80 cities, and not expected to grow beyond that number. When it comes to technology, Sprint's WiMAX service can be described as marginal - when the signal is strong enough and unobstructed, expect speeds of upward of 15 Mb per second, unfortunately in the real world, WiMAX usually performs in the range of about 2 to 10 Mbps. Sprint has a few small advantages over their competitors and 4G. They have a couple of high-capacity data plans that allow upward of 12 GB per month for the same price as Verizon does for 10GB per month. Sprint has recently announced that is heavily investing in 4G LTE technologies, and has already started to build out their new generation 4G networks. Unfortunately details and news on their efforts at 4G LTE are kind of sketchy at best.
For mobile broadband customers, there is no meaningfully competitive reason to choose Sprint over Verizon nowadays, since Verizon 4G LTE is present in over 90% of Sprint's WiMAX deployed metropolitan areas. Additionally, given the egregious and “less than forthcoming” priced data overage charges of $50 per gigabyte, there is no justification to choose Sprint, and their slower WiMAX network over Verizon’s incredibly fast LTE network. Keep in mind this is for mobile broadband only (mobile hotspots and data cards). If you're a prospective Sprint cell phone customer, their unlimited data plans are indeed a justified reason to choose Sprint over all of their competitors, if your main concern is to avoid overage charges and expect to use large amounts of data, perhaps more than 5 to 10 GB per month. Although some of the smaller regional providers such as MetroPCS provide unlimited 4G data, no other national wireless carrier still offers unlimited use data from new customers on either cell phones or hotspots.