4G Shoppers: Welcome to 2012
Not more than a few years ago, we figured the 4G landscape for consumers would be sort of settled in the not so distant future. Well, here were are, and there is still no confirmed official definition of what 4th Generation (4G) wireless broadband technology is. Unfortunately the perception of what 4G is is largely based on the carefully worded ad campaigns that target the hundreds of millions of "regular consumers" of the big wireless providers products and services.
We've all seen the giant billboards, proclaiming "Americas Fastest 4G", "America's Largest 4G Network", "2000 more 4G cities than Verizon 4G" and so on... If industry expects can't agree on 4G, how can us regular folks who simply want to invest their time and dollars in the 4G network with (honestly) the most reliable, fastest, and best coverage?
Contrary to what you might believe, what the term "4G Wireless" really refers to is a way to characterize all the new wireless technologies that have been developed to replace the current 3G (Third Generation) wireless technologies that all the major major cellular providers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and other 2nd tier players). 3G Wireless was first rolled out around 2005, but did not really catch fire until the introduction of the iPhone 3 back in 2007. The "heyday" of 3G was the period of 2008 to 2010, where 3G uses and infrastructure growth doubled every 6 to 8 months on average. It was not until 2011, that 4G became a viable and relatively widely available alternative to 3G
The truth about 4G technology is that it may never come to stand for anything more than a way to describe the amazing improvement in speed 4G offers as compared to all earlier technologies. How fast? All the current 4G networks already support 4G data transmission speeds no less than four times faster than its 3G predecessors, with some blowing past old 3G speeds by a factor of 10 to 25 times!
Why 4G, and what does it offer for the average user?
- Wireless delivery of real-Time, full frame rate, 1080P TV and Video across all your mobile devices.
- Near-zero lag high definition video and audio chat; New possibilities in mobile video conferencing
- Cloud-based storage for all your digital media like music, video, and ebooks, anytime/anywhere.
- Viable alternative to wired broadband (like cable modems & FiOS) at home
- Lastly, experience the web and digital media the way it was meant to - The wireless network is fully transparent, focus on content - not the method of wireless delivery
It is likely true to say that the real-world limitations of 3G technology is not so much an inherent slow speed, but rather traffic congestion and capacity. The inability of the 3G networks to handle the sudden or spiked increase in traffic brought about the introduction and mass uptake of the iPhone as well as the new Google Android phones, gave new urgency to build out the new, more robust 4G networks by starting around 2009.
For the past few years, the big mobile providers have been pushing and tweaking 3G to squeeze every bit of last juice from it. But there comes a time when you've got to bite bullet and let go of 3G, and throw efforts and funds to 4G. To ease those congestion problems of 3G, mobile carriers have placed more and more limits on the wireless data transfer volume and rates.
Will this new generation of 4G wireless technologies liberate us from the tyranny of clogged and slow 3G networks? To answer this question we need to dig deeper and look at each of these new high-tech wonder solutions, so we can compare them side-by-side. By the end of 2015 there will be an astonishing 10 times more mobile data traffic than there is today. When this happens it will be because of the contributions of brave new mobile Internet technologies such as 4G . It is estimated that by 2018, the amount of data traveling over every wireless network will exceed the total of all wired networks worldwide for the first time.
Lets take a look where the current state of the three types of 4G technology
HSPA+ Is Growing And Evolving Fast
At present, the 4G HSPA (High Speed Packet Access with enhanced backhaul) wireless protocol represents the fastest growing form of wireless mobile technology currently in use. It is expected that by the end of 2012, HSPA+ will have one billion subscribers worldwide. That number is expected to double by 2015. What makes it so special? HSPA+ can support peak data transfer rates up to 14 megabits per second for downloading and 5.7 megabits per second for uploading, which is cetaining a boost over 3G, but nothing to really brag about. Wireless carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile love HSPA+, because it allows them to "convert" their 3G HSPA networks to 4G HSPA+ with the least amount of time, money and effort. Make no mistake about it, mobile carriers see the writing on the wall - 4G HSPA+ has at best, a couple of more years of marketability and selling points. HSPA+ allows AT&T and T-Mobile to say, "Yep - We've 4G Right Now!" while they go about deploying their 4G LTE networks over the next two years.
WiMax: An old dog, yet still alive and kickin'
WiMax was the first 4G network to actually come online, but was somewhat of a "closed system". Presently, only Sprint (through it's business partner ClearWire) uses WiMax 4G. It's available in about 80 US cities, with little or no plans to significantly built WiMax out more. Having WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is sort of like your wireless router connection at home multiplied by a factor few thousand. WiMax was intended to offer the flexibility if Wi-Fi, with the scalability of an array of microwave radio towers. Whether or not that intention ever truly came to fruition remains of some contentions.
WiMax 4G did not have the benefit of having a previous up-and-running 4G network that it could model and compare itself to. What looked great on the WiMax blueprints, often failed to live up to it's promise in the real world. Nonetheless, WiMax has created a niche in providing moderately fast 4G service to areas that often didn't even have decent 3G coverage before Wimax 4G came to town. 4G WiMax has also recently found a new home with some carriers like NetZero and Virgin Mobile, who resell the service as a prepaid option at rock-bottom prices. Wimax 4G is currently the only 4G option that still offers unlimited and unmetered data usage though some of the 2nd tier providers like Virgin Wireless and Clear
All Future Bets on 4G LTE
The new LTE 4G technology is another mobile communications standard that just happens to be the charmer of this bunch. What is so special about it? LTE is an acronym that stands for "Long Term Evolution", a term meant to convey the essence of it, which is an ongoing process to keep making wireless communications technology better, faster, and more accessible all the time. Today's top tier cellular providers such as Verizon and AT&T are now deploying 4G networks that use this technology. Sprint also threw their hat into LTE the ring in 2012, but they certainly have their work cut out for them. It looks like Verizon has at least an 18 month head start over the other big three providers.
What's different about LTE when compared to HSPA+ and WiMax?
LTE was planned, engineered and built from the ground up to be the highest capacity and fasted mobile solution for at least the next several years. HSPA + and WiMax were largely improvement to existing 3G solutions - incremental improvements, rather than giant steps forward.
LTE is sure to become the next big milestone in increasing mobile broadband speed for all the worlds’ users who have have an unquenchable thirst for more mobile content. LTE is generally advertised as supporting download speeds of "5 to 12 Mbps". The truth is that 4G LTE is perhaps the only facet in the wireless industry where the speeds are underrated. Hundreds of users in cities all over America have reported LTE download speeds of up to 40 Mbps. 4G LTE will surely start to slow down as more and more users start saturating it's pipeline, but If everything goes as planned LTE will give us plenty of bandwidth breathing room until at least 2016.
Jeff Goines, Associate Editor
Category: Mobile Hotspot Articles