4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

Summary: There are lots of discussions about what is or what isn't really 4G, but it really doesn't matter and since the performance is faster and better than before what did you expect carriers to call it?


After years of talking about WiMAX, Sprint rolled out their WiMAX-based network with the Overdrive device in early 2010. They labeled this wireless technology 4G and began the marketing wars with other carriers. Even if none of the latest wireless technologies in the US are 4G, by strict definition, the speeds are MUCH faster than they were when carriers called their networks 3G so they had to call it something and as long as the performance improvements are there your average consumer likely does not care what it is labeled. Jason Hiner wrote a post about AT&T and T-Mobile making up 4G networks out of thin air and while there may be something to this from a technical backend perspective, I don't think it matters and performance and coverage are all that the consumer cares about.

WiMAX was not strictly defined as a 4G technology by a standards body, but it was fast and fresh so Sprint went with the 4G label. T-Mobile then started rolling out their higher speed HSPA+ network and with performance results that show it is often faster than Sprint's WiMAX network they of course went with the 4G label. Honestly, what did you expect them to call it, HSPA+ (that's quite a mouthful)? If the consumer sees that it is faster than other networks labeled 4G then they don't see any issue with calling it 4G or maybe why not even 5G?

In December, the ITU changed/refined their definition of 4G so that WiMAX, LTE, and HSPA+ are now considered 4G technologies by definition. There are not any networks available now or coming in the near future in the U.S. that would have met the previous definition of 4G that had a threshold of up to 1 Gbit/s and thus it makes sense to call what is available or coming in the next couple of years 4G to cover the years after 3G and before we see the next increase in wireless speed.

There are some pretty heated battles and slamming going on in commercials right now with all the major US wireless carriers at each other's throats. Again, the consumer just wants to buy smartphones from the carrier with the fastest network that has the best coverage for THEM at the lowest price they can afford and thus this varies for every one of us because of the geographic expanse of the US. In my personal experiences, I rate the network speeds as follows, from fastest to slowest:

  • Verizon's LTE: I saw max speeds of 23.61 Mbps down and 12.87 Mbps up with their new LG USB modem. There are currently no smartphones with LTE available, but they are coming soon.
  • T-Mobile's HSPA+: I saw 6 to nearly 8 Mbps down on the T-Mobile G2 and myTouch 4G, but both of these devices are limited to 14.4 Mbps with the network currently able to get to a 21.1 Mbps theoretical speed.
  • Sprint's WiMAX: I saw max speeds of 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up with their Overdrive and my HTC EVO 4G.

*I have yet to have a chance to try out AT&T's HSPA+ because they do not yet have any smartphones or other devices available to support this network. While AT&T will have HSPA+ devices soon and LTE to follow, their HSPA+ network is limited to the 14.4 Mbps speeds and will not be up to the 21.1 Mbps speeds of T-Mobile.

T-Mobile will be doubling the theoretical download speeds of it's HSPA+ network to 42 Mbps, which may match Verizon's LTE speeds. Sprint's WiMAX is at the maximum speed and AT&T is planning to roll out LTE so it should match up with Verizon and T-Mobile eventually.

So, in closing, I think the most accurate thing that all of these carriers could have done is call these new network technologies 3.75G, but then that would sound stupid so 4G makes perfect marketing sense and let's just get over it. None of them are going to change now and it doesn't make sense to keep arguing about it. Consumers are seeing faster speeds on their devices and as long as a consumer gets good coverage from a carrier in their region and they are satisfied with the price everything is good. There is NOT a single carrier in the US that is best for everyone and thankfully we all have choices.

Lastly, the speed and performance experience is highly dependent on the smartphone OS you are using as well. Verizon will sell millions of the new iPhone 4 even if it runs on the 3G EVDO Rev. A network and people will be happy because 3G on a fast phone is still a pleasure to use and having faster speeds is more of a luxury than a necessity at this time.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

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  • On 4G Apple would turn FaceTime on over cell network

    For now, they do not want to do it for 3G networks since it would usually allow only shameful quality, which Steven Jobs hates. And, of course, he has to spare the poor AT&T of more hate for being even less capable because of additional cell network overload if FaceTime would be turned on now. <br><br>Probably iPhone 5 might support faster cell networks and be able to do FaceTime.<br><br>I mean FaceTime is still <b>not</b> necessity, but having it with good quality "everywhere" would mean quite a lot (for now Skype offers 3G videocalls on iPhone 4, but these lack of quality, let alone convenience, comparing to FaceTime and, as I said above, Apple probably would not like that kind of quality).
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

      I wonder how many really use Facetime?
      Myself and some friends started just to see how it works... after a couple of weeks we don't use it any more.

      Even with the fact we jb and can do it over 3G, we still don't use it - nothing to do with the quality which was not bad.
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't


      So how come I can video chat over 3G with Fring, Yahoo and Skype?

      All approved and available for free in the App Store?.

      Sort of destroys your argument.
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't


      Front facing cameras and video calling over 3G have been available for about 8 years on many other phones. It is even MULTI-Vendor, so you don't need to know what phone the other person has, and whether they have installed any 3rd party apps.

      Once again, a late me-to feature on the iPhone is NEWS, because it has been given a cool name!
      • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

        Please oh enlightened one give us one example of a 3G phone with a front facing camera from 2002.
      • How about 1 from 2003?

        @Johnpford <br><br>Sony Ericsson Z1010<br><br>Front facing camera phone released in 2003.<br><br><a href="http://www.pcworld.com/article/198515/iphone_4s_video_chat_not_the_first_a_look_back.html" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.pcworld.com/article/198515/iphone_4s_video_chat_not_the_first_a_look_back.html</a>
  • verizon's lte...

    ... seems to be the only one deserving the name 4g by the comparison you provided. the differences in upload and download speeds are just to big for all of them to be called 4g.
    banned from zdnet
    • Except his comparison...

      @banned from zdnet His comparison in this article is pretty flawed. Here are a couple of points as an example.
      1.) Verizon is only quoting 5-12 Mbps down for their LTE network. Occasional higher speeds, especially when hardly anybody is using it, should not be used for comparison.

      2.) He said he only got 4Mbps down with his EVO on WiMax. Others, myself included, are getting 10-15 Mbps down.
      • 15 would be hard since the network maxes at 14.4....

      • WiMax USB Card

        I can consistently get 10 Mbps and 1 Mbps upload.
  • Hey Matt, does the ATT Captivate (SGH-i897) support HSPA ?

    Please say yes.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
  • What about the key point of latency?

    I think that you missed a key point of Jason Hiner's article, which was latency. This is a key element of 4G. With latency of 200ms, VOIP over a 3G connection is not practical. Now that true 4G offers latency that can be 1/4-1/2 of that, it is moving closer to reality (of course there will be other factors). The latency should translate into faster load times for webpages and add the posibility of other applications.

    Additionally the fact that 4G networks are designed to handle data natively, is a move in the direction like modern cable companies. Nowadays voice, video, and internet are all being carried over a data connection, like Comcast and Fios, using newer technologies like MPLS. 4G should allow services like this to be packaged over a 4G connection.

    The technology of true 4G will give better performance and also open up other possibilities that 3G cant. These performance increases will be very noticable to your average user as well. Some things like latency immediately, others in the future once the markets have matured.

    Are you able to benchmark the latency for these networks that you have listed?
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't


      Not practical?

      I've been using it for years, most calls to far away countries where you'll get that level of lag anyway.
  • 4G is 4G when it is 4G

    Carriers may call it anything, 4G is 4G when it is 4G, anything other than that is a pure lie..but who cares, anything goes.
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

      I would agree with you, except that it appears that the 'standard' was named prematurely. It seems they were too optimistic in their specification. I applaud them for admitting that engineering is not always what is hoped, and in redfining as needed.
  • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

    Matt - you are right I suspect.
    I use an i4 and a Nexus One and find my Nex feels "faster".
    My son is the same - he went from a 3GS to a Captivate - and to him it is about speed.

    So whatever we call it - as long as it is faster than the previous, we as consumers will be happy campers!
  • Sprint-Clear QOS

    "Sprint?s WiMAX: I saw max speeds of 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up with their Overdrive and my HTC EVO 4G."

    Well that's interesting, as using a Clear provided USB modem, at home (inside - 5000ft from tower), which is at the upper physical limits of the tower range (this location), I get 3m/500k, and within 1000ft of the tower, I get 6m (bust to 10m) and a full 1m up, and the 6m/1m is by config limit, not capability of the WiMax standard. I believe that testing and reporting QOS on these services via a phone is like testing a race track with a VW Bug. Worhless data, and just wait, the caps are going to be added t LTE soon, and I could care less about the other services, as they are 3.5g, not 4g.
    • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't


      Worthless data?

      Kinda like real world performance more likely.

      I average 3.5Mbps with bursts up to 5.5Mbps on an iPhone 4 (Vodafone Australia) uploads 1.5 - 2 Mbps.

      Try uploading a 720p video if you want to say upload speeds aren't that important.
  • RE: 4G or not? Performance matters and the tech doesn't

    As seen, the carriers call anything, well anything. Wouldn't it be nice to have a corporate entity be truthful? When $ is the bottom line (always!), caveat emptor. Wouldn't it be nice if the press didn't encourage the practice?
  • Just not what I'd hoped

    It'll be great competition for the cable companies. A wifi access point anywhere that's super fast over 4G. The ads are already rolling out.
    As a VZW customer I was hoping LTE would bring phones that work everywhere on earth. With the bandwidth ownership problems, though, that is not likely to happen. Now what's coming? A VZW LTE phone with one LTE sim and one GSM sim as a world phone? What a joke. I think Tmo's freqs only allow Edge overseas. ATT is still the only game in town for world travelers.