Mobile Broadband in Simple Terms
What is Mobile broadband? It’s basically a portable, high speed wireless data service. Year after year, the only thing that remains constant in the world of mobile broadband is change itself. What was considered “portable” and “high speed” in 2007, is now a nostalgic joke in 2012.
For most non-tech users, mobile broadband is usually condensed into a set of keywords/buzzwords, terms like “3G”, “4G”, and “Data Limits”. Not that this is a bad thing – it just means that if you want to make the most informed and intelligent investment when it comes time to invest in your next smartphone or mobile hotspot, it pays to have more than a “surface knowledge” of those buzzwords – after all, you’re sometimes going to be married to that mobile device for 2 years – needless to say, it pays to know what your getting into.
Whether shopping for a new product, or simply trying to understand the technology used devices you already own, the editors of MobileHotspot.com have compiled a list of common terms you will likely come across when shopping for, and comparing mobile broadband and mobile hotspot products – some old, some new.
1xRTT: This technology is circa 2005, but still relevant in some case. 1xRTT is the second generation (2G) mobile broadband technology used by Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon. Upload and download speeds average about 40Kbps – 120Kbps with bursts speeds of up to 140kbps. In today’s mobile communications landscape, 1xRTT speed is considered horribly slow, not that much faster than old-fashioned 56K dial-up. 1xRTT 2G is still relevant because in areas where 3G/EVDO is not available, EVDO-enabled devices will connect to the 1xRTT network. Think of it as data coverage of last resort – dramatically slower than newer protocols, but still data coverage nonetheless. In terms of overall performance, 1xRTT is most closely compared to AT&T and T-Mobile’s EDGE 2G data network.
2G: A broad, somewhat abstract term meaning the “second generation” of standards for mobile networking. 2G signified the first generation of “all digital” communications, and was a major advance from the prior analog telecom networks. Virtually all 3G-Enabled devices like cell phones, broadband modems and mobile hotspots will fall back to 2G connectivity when a 3G signal is not available or strong enough. 3G is on average is five to ten times faster than 2G for downloads and uploads. EDGE (AT&T) and 1xRTT (Verizon and Sprint) and two common 2G networks in North America.
3G: A mobile telecom industry term meaning the “3rd generation” of standards for mobile telecommunications and mobile broadband.
The nationwide rollout of 3G networks were one of the most significant milestones in mobile communications and broadband history, in that it finally allowed a wide range of high speed mobile services that could be enjoyed by millions of users at “reasonable” monthly costs – this included streaming video, near-real time multiplayer gaming, VOIP and quick(er) download of large files, songs, and videos.
2007-2008 was a milestone period for 3G. The greater mobile bandwidth capability that quickly became commonplace for millions, most famously on the iPhone 3G, gave birth to entire new marketplaces, like the iTunes, Apple App Store and Android Marketplace. Two of the most common 3G networks are EVDO are Wireless Wide Area Networking (WWAN).
3G Router/4G Router: A portable networking device, usually powered by a high capacity rechargeable battery that lasts for several hours. The 3G Router has a UBS port, where a USB broadband modem , also known as Dongle or AirCard, can be plugged into.
The 3G router then distributes, or shares the internet connection to several connected people or devices at the same time within a radius of up to 300 feet. In many senses, the 3G mobile broadband router was the predecessor to today’s Mobile Hotspots. Their main advantage over mobile hotspots is that the data provider can be freely changed by swapping the dongle, as well as the possibility of easily upgrading from 3G to 4G service.
Mobile broadband routers are also generally more suited for “high availability” business use than mobile hotspots in that they can usually accept signal boosters, add-on auxiliary batteries, and more powerful external antenna that can effectively increase the range and signal strength several-fold. Some 3G and 4G routers can act as “failover” devices for larger sized businesses. The wireless router will kick in upon the failure of wired broadband, like T1, T3, ISDN, and FiOS – ensuring communication continuity, albeit slower.
3G and 4G routers are sometimes more difficult to administer and setup (as compared to mobile hotspots) and usually require at least two separate component to be connected together and some degree of configuration. Today’s mobile broadband routers are as robust and secure as their stationary counterparts that you would find in homes or offices, supporting WPA2 security, MAC filtering and ultra-fast Wi-Fi N with rates of up 300 Mbps, and support for 256 connections.
4G: The term adopted by the wireless industry to describe the “4th Generation” of mobile connectivity. As of 2012, 4G mobile networks have begun to replace 3G in hundreds of metro areas and cities throughout North Americas. Confusingly for consumers, there is actually no formal guideline for what exactly defines and constitutes 4G.
The FCC has somewhat vaguely ruled that any service that “significantly enhances” the speed and user experience (as compared to 3G networks?) can be labeled a “4G Network”. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all have 4G up and running in the United States, but some have much more coverage than others.
WiMax is the oldest publicly available 4G network, available since late 2008 in some places. WiMax is the current 4G standard from Sprint and its partner Clear Wireless. WiMax offers average download speeds of about 3 to 8 Mbps.
Verizon and AT&T are rolling out 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), which is presently the fastest 4G implementation, enabling download speeds of about 8 to 20 Mbps.
Both AT&T and T-Mobile are currently promoting and selling their “legacy” 4G solution called HSPA+ 4G, which is sort of a bridge between 3G and 4G (sometimes called “3.5G”). HSPA+ is slower than LTE, but due to some clever technology tricks and dense coverage of existing HSPA cell towers, a large percentage of users will indeed experience “4G speeds” upward of around 5 to 8 Mbps.
Aircard (Connect Card): This is most often associated with the generic terms for a wireless broadband modem. The name “AirCard” is actually a trademarked term of Sierra Wireless. Today’s broadband modems are almost always USB or ExpressCard format, but some PCMCIA card can still be found, even though the PCMCIA format is long obsolete. Aircards and their generic equivalents have the advantage of usually being less expensive than mobile hotspots, and like mobile hotspots, are universally compatible to any laptop, PC, and a large percentages of portable 3G/4G router. The big drawback of aircards is they cannot be used with the ever growing number of smartphones, tables, eBook Readers, and game systems like mobile hotspots can.
Amplifier (or Signal Booster; Repeater): These devices are intended to boost the signal strength of cellular or Wi-Fi signals. A signal amplifier will usually offer a much greater increase in signal strength and call reliability than a high-gain external antenna alone. Some add-on antennas have built in, powered external amplifiers for added benefit.
A Wireless Repeater is a type of amplifier that is designed to bridge the gap between two weakened signal sources. For example, if you have your Wi-Fi router installed in the basement of your home and notice you can’t pickup a signal in the 3rd floor attic, a repeater-amplifier placed on the second floor would receive the signal from the basement, then “retransmit” the signal with a big boost of signal power.
Passive Signal boosters are specially designed for boosting the signal of devices that do not have an external antenna connection, such as the MiFi Mobile Hotspot. These are considered repeaters, but sometimes strip out the complicated setup and configuration required for dedicated 3G or 4G repeaters.
Another popular amplifier is known as a Pico-Cell repeater. The pico-cell acts as a tiny cell phone tower that can be placed right in your office or living room. It specializes in tuning into the faint, weak cell phone signal and boosting it to a level that will assure excellent signal strength and call reliability all throughout your home or office. The amount of “boost” delivered by a signal amplifier is known as gain, and is expressed in dB’s (decibels) and sometimes milliwatts.
Because all the cell technologies like LTE, WiMax, HSPA, all work on different frequencies, not all boosters or antenna will work for every wireless protocols.
Bandwidth: A relative measure of the rate of volume for data that is available over a fixed period of time. The most commonly used measure is “Megabits per second” (Mbps). For example, 3 Mbps would mean three megabits that can be transferred from point to point in one second. Bandwidth that is delivered by mobile providers can be though of like water being piped into your home by the water company. For a given month, the water company will know the volume (how much) water you used by reading the water meter.
Today’s bandwidth usage is metered in a similar manner, but instead of gallons-per-month, you are billed on gigabytes-per-month. Most providers set a limit on the monthly bandwidth. Sprint. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have all generally standardized around the 5GB per month billing model. All providers, except Sprint 4G will either turn off your high speed bandwidth or change extra if the agreed monthly bandwidth limit is surpassed.
Benchmark Test (Speed Test): A software tool or application used to test the upload and download speed as well as the responsiveness of an online connection. A number of online sites, such as SpeedTest.net offer free benchmark test tools and mobile apps also exist that will measure the overall speed and performance of wireless broadband connections.
Several benchmark tests have become more standardized in their measures, which helps consumers compare apple-to-apples in a variety of locations and conditions. The three common bench marked attributes for all tests are Download and Upload Speeds (in kilobytes per second), as well as Network Latency as expressed in milliseconds (also called the “ping” rate) which measures how long a network takes to respond to an action – for example – how long it takes for the browser to start refreshing the web page after you press the refresh-button.
EDGE: A older second generation (2G) technology used by T-Mobile and AT&T. Typical upload and download speeds range from 40Kbps – 150Kbps, which is not all that much faster than an old fashioned 56K dial-up modem service. In areas where HDPA (3G) is not available, HSPA enabled devices will fallback to 2G mode and attempt to connect to the EDGE networks. (HDPA is a 3G technology found on AT&T phones and mobile broadband) EDGE is comparable to Verizon and Sprint’s 1xRTT network. With the advent and rapid implementation of 4G, EDGE is quickly becoming extinct.
EVDO (EV-DO): “Evolution-Data Optimized” is the 3G mobile broadband technology used by Verizon and Sprint. The current version of EDVO known as EVDO Rev-A, has average speeds of 600-1400kbps download and 500-800kbps upload. EVDO generally has superior ability to achieve strong signals, even when there is an obstructed line-of-sight to the cell tower, however EVDO is particularly sensitive to network congestion, which can result in drastically wide “real world” download speeds decreased by 80%. Being a non-standard GSM 3G protocol, EVDO is not used outside of North America, Korea and Japan. EVDO-A is downwardly compatible with the original, slower version known as EVDO-REV 0 (400-100Kbps download)
HSPA: (High Speed Packet Access). The current 3G standard offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. HSPA offers average download speeds of 800kbps to 1800kbps, but actual speeds can vary drastically, especially in dense metro areas and network congestion. HSPA was designed to offer a lower degree of latency that other 3G solutions and generally has a tendency to offer a more “predictable” level of performance, as HSPA in theory can better handle sudden spikes in the number of users transmitting on a particular channel or tower. As a standard 3G GSM protocol, HSPA is used in the majority of countries around the world, and is a great choice for international travelers who hope to use their own equipment on foreign wireless providers.
HSPA+: (High Speed Packet Access Plus; with Enhanced Back haul) Considered to be a 4G technology by AT&T and T-Mobile. HPSA+ is a special technical implementation and improvement of the 3G HSPA protocol. One advantages of HSPA+ is that it’s backward compatible to 3G HSPA and is typically 3 to 6 times faster than HSPA for uploading and downloading.
HSPA+ has endured some claims that it’s not actually a 4G technology, as HSPA+ is often refereed to as “3.5G” or “4G Lite”, due to the fact that on paper, HSPA+ spec’s are not as attractive as LTE. However, in real world environments, HSPA+ has been only slightly behind the speed of LTE 4G in a majority of metro areas. AT&T has stated that LTE Technology 4G networks will replace it’s HSPA+ networks for most metro areas by 2013.
Latency: A measure, expressed as milliseconds (1000 milliseconds=1 second) from one packet (piece of information) to get from one place to another. It is important that latency be gauged when measuring the overall performance of a mobile broadband connection.
A high latency, say 400ms, can make a connection that has an incredibly high 12 Mbps download speed, seem like a frustrating experience for the user. Latency is a particularly important factor in online gaming and video chat. Some people also refer to latency as “Ping Time”. Most mobile broadband speed tests will measure average and peak latency.
LTE (Long Term Evolution): The current 4G standard offered by Verizon Wireless and with a planned rollout for AT&T in 2012 nationwide. On average, LTE is consistently faster than all other current 3G or 4G solutions in terms of upload speed, download speed and latency – for some situtaions, LTE is a practical replacement for a wired broadband connection (like a cable modem) at home.
Typical download and upload rates average about 8 to 12 Mbps, with some areas in the United States reporting download speeds as fast as 25 Mbps. LTE also has a much lower latency, often around 70 ms, which is typically more reponsive than other 4G wireless technologies.
Latency might not be the glamorous benchmark that “download speeds” is, but it can be even more important to the overall user experience, especially with today’s trends in VOIP, real-time multiplayer gaming and video conferencing. LTE was also designed from the ground up to be 3GPP compliant, meaning that you’re mobile 4G LTE device can seamlessly roam on data networks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Verizon Jetpack, AT&T Elevate, and Sprint Tr-Fi are three popular Mobile Hotspots that can utilize LTE 4G.
MiFi (Mobile Hotspot): While not the first Mobile Hotspot to hit the market, the 3G network compatible MiFi, which was introduced in 2009 became a smash hit in just a few short months of being on sale. Made by Novatel, the MiFi 2200 was totally unique in that it combined a 5-user 3G router, data modem and 4 hour battery into one tiny package about the size of 8 stacked credit cards.
The MiFi won dozens of awards and editors choice selections for its simplicity and ease of use. For the first time, a user could simply press a button to get online wherever they were without worrying about complicated configurations or hookup cables. The Novatel MiFi 2200 was the first mobile hotspot offered by Verizon and Sprint on their 3G networks. By 2010 the word “MiFi” had become practically synonymous with mobile hotspot devices. In 2012, Novtatel introduced an updated MiFi called the MiFi Jetpack 4620L , operating on LTE 4G networks.
Mobile Broadband: The infrastructure and use of mobile phone networks to provide data access across the internet. The quality and service levels of mobile broadband networks is measured by both speed and bandwidth. An influential technical steering group in the UK, DigitalBritain, has stated that the minimum requirement of network to be considered Mobile Broadband is 2 Mbps at a topological coverage rate of 100%. Mobile Broadband is primarily consumed using wireless broadband modems, mobile hotspots, and directly to 3G and 4G enabled smartphones, tablets, and eBook readers.
Mobile Hotspot: A small, pocket sized, all-in-one, device that bundles a broadband modem, with a wireless router and rechargeable battery. Mobile Hotspots typically have just one button – a power on/off. The Novatel MiFi 2200 became a smash hit when it was introduced in 2009. While other similar solution existed for years, never was there such a tiny device that made it so easy for multiple users to share a single data plan.
The greatest appeal of a mobile spot is its simplicity – just press a button and in a few seconds up to ten people can surf the web at full broadband speeds. The newest generation of 4G mobile hotspots, such as the Verizon Jetpack and Novatel MiFi 4G offer latest technology including 4G LTE connectivity and Wireless-N along with the most robust wireless security features to protect your data and information while online.
Laptops, iPods, game consoles, iPods, the Kindle, and any other Wi-Fi enabled device made in the past 10 years can seamlessly use a mobile hotspot. Mobile Hotspots are popular with business travelers and families’ on-the-go.
Packet Loss: When the wireless signal of a digital transmission is degraded, parts of the messages can become corrupt or lost. Modern methods of transmitting data allow for only a tiny percentage of the packets to be lost before the user will become aware of the problem.
Packet loss to the average user can equate to dropped calls, choppy-pixilated video, or text or email messages that never get to their destination. Packet loss is usually the result of a weak signal due to proximity to cell towers and/or physical obstructions such as interior walls, building or trees – and even the weather. Packet loss can also be the result of equipment of transmission problems by the wireless provider. Pack loss due to low signal strength can often be remedied by signal boosters, external add-on antennas or repeaters
Tethering: A method of gaining access to mobile broadband most often associated with connecting a mobile phone to a computer with USB cable. The tether-cable will transmit all data that would normal be expected to transfer over the wired or wireless connection of the computer. Some Smartphone operating systems with hotspot tethering capability, namely Android and IOS can tether their 3G or 4G connection via their Wi-Fi signal.
The phone can act as a mobile hotspot, sharing the phones internet connections with several people at once. A few years ago, this was a handy trick to get online with a laptop and cell phone alone, for no more the cost than your monthly data plan. A few years ago, all major wireless providers added additional fees for the data tethering feature, and typically charge up to an additional $30 per month on top of the fees for the base data plan.
Wi-Fi: The de facto wireless networking technology for homes and offices that uses radio spectrum to provide wireless internet and network connections. Wi-Fi enables different types of equipment and manufacturers to communicate out of the box, without any special configuration. The two standards available today are “Wireless-G” (up to 54 Mbps) and “Wireless-N” (up to 300 Mbps). Wi-Fi enables older devices to take advantage of modern 3G and 4G broadband speeds. – for example, as older, “obsolete” iPhone 2G can come alive and access the web at 4G speeds when it connects to a 4G mobile hotspot with it’s Wi-Fi connection.
WiMax: The 4G wireless standard introduced by, and currently in use by Sprint and its business partner Clear Wireless. The technical name for WiMax is Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access). WiMax download and upload speeds are generally in the 2 to 8 Mbps (4000 to 8000 Kbps) range. The main advantage with WiMax technology is also often also it’s disadvantage – If you have line-of-sight to a WiMax cell tower, you can get super fast, up to 10 Mbps speeds, but loose that line-of-sight and the speed can drop down to 1 Mbps. WiMax signals also tend to get degraded more than HSPA+ and LTE during heavy rain or snow. WiMax has also been slower to expand as compared to Verizon and AT&T’s HSPA+ and LTE 4G networks. The Novatel MiFi 4082 is a Mobile Hotspot that uses Sprint’s WiMax 4G network
Wireless N: The latest Wi-Fi radio technology supported universally by all major equipment manufactures. While Wireless-N offers throughput speeds at least double (108 to 300 Mbps) those of WiFi-G. Wireless-N also increases the range and penetration of the wireless signal. Wireless-N is backward compatible with the older Wi-Fi “G” (54 Mbps) and “B” (22 Mbps) standards.