Prior to purchase, find out just what 4G really means

Feb 27 2011 - 4:03am

Maybe you've seen the ads from Verizon Wireless: flashes of red lighting, booming thunder. It's not the end of the world, it's 4G for phones.

But what is 4G? And, more important, is it worth the price?

Faster service? Maybe. 3G and 4G refer to third- and fourth-generation wireless networks, respectively. However, the "G" service applies to data only. Faster speeds refer to how quickly data such as apps, photos and videos can be downloaded from the Internet to your phone or other wireless device and vice versa.

How much faster? No one seems to agree. The International Telecommunications Union, an organization that set the standard for 3G that remains consistent across network providers, defines 4G as offering download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second. No U.S. provider who claims to offer 4G service, comes close to that speed.

Is 4G more reliable? No. 4G service does not mean stronger signals. If you don't get a reliable phone signal at certain locations today, 4G won't make a difference.

To make the situation even more confusing, providers use different technologies to produce faster speeds.

Providers compared

Sprint began rolling out 4G service in selected metropolitan markets almost a year ago. Sprint's service is based on Clearwire's WiMax technology. Sprint's download speeds have been recorded at between three and six megabits per second.

Verizon is building out its LTE (long term evolution) technology and began offering 4G service last November. The company has launched 4G service in 38 markets to 110 million potential customers. It has said it will cover two-thirds of the U.S. population by mid-2012. Verizon speeds seem to be about twice as fast as Sprint's: Verizon's own tests show download speeds vary between seven and 12 megabits per second, which have been confirmed by third parties.

AT&T has upgraded its 3G networks to HSPA+, High Speed Packet Access that is a faster 3G-based network. The company plans to begin developing an LTE network later this year.

AT&T now calls its HSPA+ network a 4G network. While the company has made no published claims about speed, an AT&T endorsed report implies the company's upgraded 3G network speeds are around two megabits per second or less and users have reported download speeds of up to eight megabits per second.

Like AT&T, T-Mobile has begun upgrading its 3G network to HSPA+. Not to be left behind, the company now refers to its faster network as 4G. T-Mobile offers download speeds between three and seven megabits per second, comparable to Sprint.

But like any connection, other variables may affect speed, so your actual speed may vary based on network load, your location and other factors.

Need 4G device

To use 4G service, you must have a 4G-capable device. Very few 4G devices are available at this time, and Sprint is the only provider that offers 4G phones -- the HTC Evo and the Samsung Epic.

Verizon offers 4G USB cards for laptops, but will not have 4G phones, tablets or computers until the second half of this year, according to the company's announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year.

AT&T does not have 4G service. Its first 4G phone, the HTC Inspire that began shipping last week, may have had its 4G-capabilities disabled in some way, according to unhappy customers. And an iPhone 4, whether it's on AT&T or most recently on Verizon, is not 4G. While the iPhone 5, due to be released in June of this year, could be 4G compatible, the rumors may be nothing more than wishful thinking.

T-Mobile sells two HSPA+ compatible handsets, the G2 and the MyTouch, both made by HTC.

Type "A" only

If you use a smartphone or another device for transferring large amounts of data and you simply cannot wait an extra minute, you could consider upgrading to 4G service when it becomes available in your area through your carrier.

Sprint charges an extra $10 per month for its speedier service; Verizon has not yet announced pricing plans beyond saying plans will be similar to its current 4G USB card plans, which run $50 for 5GB and $80 for 10GB each month.

Eventually, all providers will offer faster data speeds, but it will take at least three years for Verizon to finish its LTE build-out -- the fastest technology available. And Verizon has more than a year head start on AT&T, the only other provider with LTE plans.

The infrastructure is underdeveloped, the device options are slim and speeds are not close to what they should be. Relax, it's too early to worry about 4G.

Ogden-based guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? E-mail Leslie Meredith at

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