Sometimes when a writer does research for a particular article, the facts that you uncover lead you inexorably to the realization that you really have a completely different story. This article is such a story. My original intent was to simply share with you a comparison and contrast article for the three major 4G networks that are available right now. Although the majority of that information will still be contained within this piece, our current "4G" networks aren't really 4G at all. They are more like 3.1G - 3.5G. Although even that turns out to be fairly subjective too and in the long run may not really matter at all.
First, the following is a breakdown of the three major cellular networks' 4G Service features (for the purposes of this article I included the best 'bang for your buck' plans from each carrier instead of listing all of them):
Sprint 4G WiMAX-
- Launched in 2008 - Currently in 74 Cities (availability is limited)
- Speeds - claims up to 10Mbps - real-world averages 3 to 6Mbps
- Currently has two phones - the HTC EVO and Samsung Epic. For Mobile Broadband - 2 USB Dongle Modems and 2 Routers (for home computers)
- Phone Plans - Unlimited Data (No Monthly Download Limit). Prices begin at $69.99 + $9.99 surcharge per month for 'Everything Data' plans
- Mobile Broadband Modem Plans - Unlimited Data (No Monthly Download Limit). Price = $49.99 per month
- Desktop Modem Connection Plan - Unlimited Data (No Monthly Download Limit). Price = $44.99 per month
- Launched in March of 2010 - Currently in 80 Cities (availability is limited)
- Speeds - claims up to 21Mbps - real-world averages 5 to 8Mbps
- Currently has two phones - the myTouch 4G and the G2. For Mobile Broadband - 2 USB Dongle Modems and 1 Netbook
- Phone Plans - Unlimited Data (but potentially reduced speeds if large usage impacts their network). Prices begin at $79.99 per month
- Mobile Broadband Plans - 5GB per month access with reduced speeds when that limit is reached. Price = $39.99 per month
Verizon 4G LTE-
- Launched December 5th, 2010 - Currently in 38 Metro areas and 60 airports (availability is limited)
- Speeds - claims up to 5 to 12Mbps - no real-world averages yet, but initial testing reports indicate 12 to 15Mbps on an unloaded network
- Currently has no phones available yet. For Mobile Broadband - 2 USB Dongle Modems
- Phone Plans & Mobile Broadband Plans are the same - $50 per month for 5GB per month - $10 per GB beyond the limit
We can draw some conclusions from this data. First, Sprint offers the slowest speeds, but has the only truly unlimited data plan, and the cheapest price. Second, Verizon has the best speeds, but their plans are the most expensive. Their 4G plan is in addition to whatever phone plan you already have, and their data limitations could get very expensive. also, they have the most limited availability with no phones yet and very limited coverage. T-Mobile seems to have the best 'middle ground' of the bunch and the best coverage, but their plans are also the most complicated to figure out. Obviously, what is best for you can also be completely limited by what is available in your area. If you live in a rural area then you probably can not take advantage of any of these plans. Of course, these services are all very new and availability will change. It's also entirely probable that a price war will brew as more people start adopting the new technology.
Regardless, there is a hidden secret underlying each and every one of these '4G' plans. They are not really '4G' at all. According to wikipedia.com the ITU Radiocommunicationsector (ITU-R), which is one of the three divisions of the International Telecommunications Union, is the organization whose purpose is "to manage the international radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources and to develop standards for radiocommunications systems with the objective of ensuring the effective use of the spectrum." This organization defines the specifications standard to be considered a 4G network as the following:
- All-IP communications.
- Peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbit/s for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility such as nomadic/local wireless access, according to the ITU requirements.
- Scalable channel bandwidth, between 5 and 20 MHz, optionally up to 40 MHz.
- Peak link spectral efficiency of 15 bit/s/Hz in the downlink, and 6.75 bit/s/Hz in the uplink (meaning that 1 Gbit/s in the downlink should be possible over less than 67 MHz bandwidth)
- System spectral efficiency of up to 3 bit/s/Hz/cell in the downlink and 2.25 bit/s/Hz/cell for indoor usage
Wow! 4G is defined as 100Mbps. Even at their peak, which has not been achievable from any public testing I could find, the existing 4G networks only hit 20% of that.
So, does this mean that we are being deceived and should be angry. It turns out, not really. According to this article at cnnmoney.com, Dan Hays, an industry management consultant at PRTM has this to say, "The labeling of wireless broadband based on technical jargon is likely to fade away in 2011," said Dan Hays, partner at industry consultancy PRTM. "That will be good news for the consumer. Comparing carriers based on their network coverage and speed will give them more facts to make more informed decisions." He further adds, "Historically, ITU's classification system has not held a great degree of water and has not been used to enforce branding," Hays said. "Everyone started off declaring themselves to be 4G long before the official decision on labeling was made. The ITU was three to four years too late to make an meaningful impact on the industry's use of the term."
Hmmm... so, how are we to determine whether we are really getting what we paid for, if the only industry standards organization is practically ignored by the industry it was created to govern? Perhaps that is more of a philosophical or political question than a practical one.
Of course in the ultra competitive world of high-speed cellular networks, the giants of the industry are going to come at us from all sides with marketing jargon. They improved their networks to offer dramatically faster speeds, and they had to call it something. Do they sometimes bend the truth... perhaps, and perhaps that makes for an interesting 'truth in advertising' discussion, or perhaps a 'how do we set industry standards' discussion? But, the bottom line is that these emerging technologies are just now beginning their evolution and, as it is with most technical industries, the early adopters have to experience the growing pains. These services are simply a bit 'under-done out of the oven' at the moment.
In the long run this 'mythology' will simply shake itself out of the industry, and we will be left with an amazing new 'even more' digitally connected world. I don't feel duped. In fact, from my perspective I can only quote the song from the 80's band Timbuk 3, "The future's so bright... i gotta wear shades."