Posts Tagged ‘wimax’
If you’ve followed broadband discussions in Washington, DC, then you’ve heard that wireless is the future of communications. The National Broadband Plan offers wireless as the competitive solution to the broadband duopoly dilemma, and in the recently released White House Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative, President Obama reiterated his State of the Union commitment to helping “extend next-generation wireless services to at least 98% of Americans.”
If you watch TV, you might think this is a good thing. The whole country is moving to 4G—next generation wireless—and according to some carriers, this is our chance to beat the world in broadband. For Obama, it’s a chance to Win the Future.
It will certainly help us win a future—but if this, as Obama said, is our “Sputnik moment,” we are not reaching for the moon.
Trying to understand 4G can give you a bit of a headache. Some surveys show that most Americans have no idea what the term “4G” means, but many plan to upgrade anyway. It’s faster—and at times more expensive—but will the technology bring us up to the same speed as other countries?
Driving adoption of next-generation technology is essential for America’s communications to catch up with the rest of the world; our broadband networks, by most standards, stand in the middle of the pack on speed. However, the wireless upgrade path is not as straight as one might assume.
The problem comes down to what “4G” really means. The buzzwords flying around the US mobile space are Long Term Evolution (LTE), HSPA+ and WiMAX. However, before this past December, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the global standards-setting body responsible for ensuring some level of interoperability in mobile communications, had set the 4G standard as LTE Advanced—technology that is not expected to be deployed until 2012 at the earliest.
That month the ITU updated their policy, saying that “’4G,’ although it is recognized that this term [is] undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMAX, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.”
In other words, the term 4G can be applied to LTE and WiMAX, the leading technologies currently rolling out in the US and globally—even though they are technically still 3G or (in marketing speak) 3.9G HSPA+, which might otherwise be more accurately defined as 3.5G.
Verizon just launched their 4G data network, joining Sprint and T-Mobile at the party. But what is 4G, exactly? Is it worth the money? How fast is it really? We’ve got you covered with answers to all your 4G mobile broadband questions.
WTF is 4G?
The idea of mobile data has always been easy enough to grasp because data speeds were slow enough that differentiating between networks and options was pretty straightforward. Data speeds would mainly depend on the amount of coverage in a given area as well as available bandwidth on the network. 3G speeds jumped around in the 500kbps to the 2mbps range, so you could go out and buy a 3G USB modem or mobile hotspot that would meet your expectations. The only real points of comparison with 3G networks had to do with coverage and speed, so we managed—even when the technology was new—to understand it.
We now have 4G data, which is a lot less clear cut. With Verizon’s launch of their 4G LTE network, three out of the four major US carriers—Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—boast 4G data networks. Each company’s definition of “4G” is quite a bit different, however, and not a single one actually meets the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) official definition. The ITU defines 4G as a connection capable of 100Mbps with high mobility (wherever you go) and up to 1Gbps with low mobility (Wi-Fi range). The cellular data network’s 4G speeds don’t even come close, and the only definition each network seems to be able to agree upon is that 4G is just what comes after 3G. While the title of “4G” isn’t necessarily accurate and, in many ways, meaningless, we nonetheless have to live by the terminology these cellular data providers are using. For the purposes of this article, 4G will simply mean the 4th Generation of each provider’s data network and nothing else.
A Quick Look at “4G” Technologies
Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at the different technologies that are currently being labeled as “4G” in the United States. We’ll be throwing around these terms as we take a deep dive, so here’s a quick refresher if you’re not fully caught up on your next-generation wireless technologies:
- Mobile WiMax- WiMax is the “4G” technology that Sprint uses, and it offers peak data rates of 128mbps downstream and 56mbpss upstream.
- Long Term Evolution (LTE) – LTE is Verizon’s choice for “4G” mobile broadband, providing theoretical peak data rates of 100mbps downstream and 50mbps upstream. While LTE (or, specifically, 3GPP LTE) isn’t technically 4G, LTE Advanced is expected to actually meet 4G requirements with a peak download speed of 1gbps (yes, one gigabit). The upgrade path from 3GPP LTE to LTE Advanced is supposed to be easier and more cost-effective than most upgrades, so this could bode well for Verizon in the near future.
- HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) – T-Mobile’s opted to use HSPA+ for its 4G network, even though HSPA is what Sprint and Verizon use for its 3G data. While HSPA+ definitely offers faster speeds, those peak speeds are about half of what LTE and WiMax offer—56mbps downstream and 22mbps upstream.
Your Options: Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile
Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have all taken fairly different approaches to what they’re calling their 4G networks. These choices make for very different strengths and weaknesses in each, primarily in the categories of coverage, speed, device options, and operating system support. Below is a comparison chart for a quick overview, but we’ll take a closer look at each network’s offerings as well, then give you our bottom line take on what’s best.
Sprint got a head start on their 4G network and so it’s not surprising their coverage is pretty decent. On the map to the left, the blue areas indicate 4G coverage and the orange areas indicate other data coverage. Sprint provides a4G coverage checker if you want to see if your area is painted blue. If you live in a major city, or near one, chances are you can use Sprint’s 4G network.
In terms of speed, Sprint rates itself the lowest of the three networks and tests show those speeds to be fairly accurate. That said, Sprint is the only of the three carriers to directly advertise average speeds and not just peak data rates. T-Mobile advertises their 4G speeds go up to 21mbps (and they probably do for somebody, somewhere) but real world tests fall short. In reality, Sprint’s 4G WiMax network performs better in real-world speed tests than T-Mobile’s 4G HSPA+ network, so kudos to Sprint for actually advertising their network speeds accurately.
Devices Options and OS Support
Sprint also has the best device support of the three networks. Smartphones aside, Sprint offers USB modems, 4G-equipped netbooks, and the Sprint Overdrive Mobile Hotspot. Sprint is currently the only carrier with a 4G mobile hotspot, which makes them particularly attractive to anyone with multiple devices. It also makes it much more simple to connect to Sprint’s network since you can do so over Wi-Fi without the need for any proprietary connectivity software.
Cost and Data Caps
When it comes to cost, however, Sprint is the most expensive at $60 per month. On paper this is $10 higher than Verizon and $20 higher than T-Mobile, but while Verizon and T-Mobile offer only 5GB of data for their respective prices ($50 and $40 per month), Sprint offers unlimited 4G data (and 5GB of 3G data). If you only plan to use 5GB of data per month, Sprint is definitely the most expensive option available to you. If you exceed 5GB of data per month, however, Sprint could turn out to be your cheapest option.
Verizon’s taken a little more time to bring its 4G network to market, but as Gizmodo noted, its speeds are exceptional. Several tech blogs and news outlets tested Verizon’s new 4G LTE network before launch and the lowest speed test ranked at 7.14mbps down and 1.12mbps up. MSNBC came in with an insanely fast 32.8mbps down and 11.99mbps up. Because these tests were performed before Sunday’s official launch, it’s possible that these speeds are not indicative of the performance we should expect once more people are actually using Verizon’s 4G network. On the other hand, if the low end of the speed tests is any indication of what to expect in every day use, Verizon’s 4G network is still the fastest. Only time will tell if that holds true.
Verizon’s coverage is currently pretty sparse, but if you live in and travel to major cities it may not matter all that much. Currently Verizon covers 38 markets and 60 major airports with plans to match its current 3G coverage by 2013. If you travel often and want 4G coverage right now, Verizon may not be the best choice. You can check Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage here.
Cost and Data Caps
Unsurprisingly, Verizon is one of the more expensive networks when it comes to data plans. While its 5GB/month plan comes in at $50, which is $10 cheaper than Sprint’s only plan, you pay $10/GB in overages. While 1GB is a lot with 3G data, when you can download at speeds similar to your home broadband connection you can easily rack up a few GB without a thought. If your data usage is a bit heavier, Verizon offers a 10GB/month plan for $80. This awards Verizon the most expensive 4G plan of any of the networks, but Verizon is also the only network offering an option. Of course, Sprint’s 4G data usage isn’t limited and costs only $60 per month, so it’s not as though you’re limited to 10GB on every network.
Device Options and OS Support
In addition to Verizon’s coverage limitations, you don’t have too many options when it comes to 4G devices. Verizon currently offers two USB modems that, when compared on their web site, are spec-for-spec identical. One of the USB modems looks notably larger, like a miniature satellite for your laptop, but all in all there doesn’t seem to be much differentiating these two offerings. Currently both USB modems only work on various flavors of the Windows operating system, so Mac users will have to wait until Verizon adds support. Currently there is no news regarding Linux support or the addition of a 4G LTE mobile hotspot.
If anybody’s stretching the definition of “4G” it’s T-Mobile. HSPA+, or Evolved HSPA, is essentially an upgrade version of what Verizon’s and Sprint’s 3G networks are made of. To be fair, though, HSPA+ is capable of notably faster speeds. In real world tests, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ came out the slowest, but that’s nothing new for T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 4G is definitely faster than its 3G speeds, especially if it ever manages to achieve the insanely high peak speed of 21mbps downstream (as advertised). If you’ve got a T-Mobile contract and want to stick around, it’s definitely a decent upgrade.
Cost and Data Caps
Cost is what really makes T-Mobile’s 4G particularly attractive. You can get a 250MB plan for only $25 per month, although why you’d want high-speed mobile broadband to only use 250MB is hard to understand. A 5GB plan costs only $40 per month, which makes T-Mobile the cheapest by $10. T-Mobile also doesn’t charge overage fees if you exceed 5GB. Instead, they simple cripple your speeds. If your budget is the most important consideration, T-Mobile might be your best option.
T-Mobile’s network also has pretty wide 4G coverage, and you can check if you’re coveredhere. While they advertise themselves as “America’s Largest 4G Network,” their coverage seems about on par with Sprint’s. Like all the 4G networks, they’re expanding, so you can expect better coverage over the next couple of years. One nice thing T-Mobile’s done is mark their “coming soon” areas on the map. While a Google search can often turn up planned 4G rollout information for any network, it’s particularly nice to see a company actually making an effort to clearly provide the customer with that information.
Device Options and OS Support
T-Mobile is similar to Verizon in terms of device options, although in addition to two USB modems T-Mobile also offers a 4G-equipped Dell Mini netbook. While T-Mobile does not provide a mobile hotspot option, they do support both Windows and Mac OS X with their USB modems so you’re not limited to Windows as you (currently) are with Verizon. Nonetheless, without a mobile hotspot option, T-Mobile really only excels at providing the lowest-cost service.
The Bottom Line
With all these options, how do you decide what will work best for you? It really depends on what you consider most important. Here’s where we felt each network ranked the best:
- Speed: Verizon
- Cost: T-Mobile
- Coverage: T-Mobile and Sprint
- Best Device Options: Sprint
- Best Value: Sprint
When 2013 rolls around and all three networks have much wider coverage, hopefully “4G” offerings will be as easy to compare as 3G. If you want to be an early adopter and start taking advantage of what each network considers its 4th generation speeds, now you know what you’re in for. With coverage still fairly sparse across all networks, however, you may be better offer waiting another year for 4G to mature. Maybe then we’ll even get a proper definition.