Mobile communications is advancing at a rapid rate, and phone makers (HTC, Sony Ericson, Motorola, ec.) and carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) need to let you know about their latest and greatest technology, and how they are better than all the rest. Sprint is first out the box with "4G Network". Verizon is touting "4G LTE". T-Mobile is now advertising "4G Speeds" and "largest 4G Network". AT&T is promising two separate kinds of 4G. Even regional carriers and budget carriers like MetroPCS, US Cellular, and Cincinnati Bell are deploying "4G" as well.
Consumers are confused. Studies showed that 34% of iPhone users thought they have a 4G device when there is no such thing as 4G iPhone! Before you Blackberry users and Android users start laughing, 29% of Android users and 24% of Blackberry users did the same thing.
Almost all "4G" devices are running Android (with 2 exceptions: HP Veer 4G running WebOS, and Samsung Craft, running proprietary OS).
The mobile carriers are LYING on national TV. What they call 3G may NOT be 3G, and what they call 4G is not actually 4G. It is clear that most consumers have NO IDEA what 4G really is.
So that is what this article wants to change: what you don't know about 4G, but should.
But first, what exactly is 3G, 4G , and all that?
3G and 4G
The international body ITU is the standards body of telecom. They define 3G and 4G, approve the various standards and protocols and whatnot that goes under the broad definitions.
For 3G, the requirements are defined in IMT-2000 standard. From Wikipedia, "3G system must allow simultaneous use of speech and data services, and provide peak data rates of at least 200 kbit/s"
For 4G, the requirements are defined im IMT-Advanced standard. From Wikipedia, 1 Gbps when stationary, 100 Mbps when mobile, and all the 3G stuff. However, in early 2011, due to pressure from the various carriers, ITU has relaxed the nomenclature requirements somewhat, so now "4G" refers to something that's significantly faster than 3G.
It is up to the carriers and phone makers to decide how to implement all that, and they may come up with various ways to do the same thing.
When 3G Is Not 3G
There are 2 systems, HSPA (derivative of GSM), and CDMA2000 that is in the US today and claims to be 3G.
Tthe current version of CDMA2000, EVDO Rev. A, is actually NOT 3G compliant. It meets all 3G standards except one: simultaneous voice and data. There is a revision of CDMA2000 called SVDO that will implement that, but Verizon and Sprint has NOT implemented it. So technically Sprint and Verizon does NOT really use 3G. More like... 2.9G
Verizon has deployed SV-DO but it is only compatible with a few newer devices.
HSPA, on the other hand, is fully 3G compliant. So when Apple called its iPhone 3G by that name, it wasn't lying. It really is 3G.
And before you ask, NO, it is not possible to make HSPA (GSM) phone work on CDMA2000 network, or vice versa. In fact, people ask this every other day, hoping they can somehow make the current iPhone 4 work on Verizon (no way!) (Learn why here)
4G Is Not 4G Either
Right now in the US market, all major carriers claim to have 4G network available. We will go through their current technology and let you know what's what.
AT&T (HSPA+21 now, LTE later)
AT&T has decided to go LTE as well (in Mid-2011), but in the meanwhile will roll out HSPA+ as an interim solution. In November 2010, it claims to have rolled out HSPA+ to 80% of its network. Keep in mind LTE is 3.9G, and HSPA+ is 3.5G.
At CES 2011, AT&T has announced several "4G" phones for its HSPA+ network. For details, please see 4G Phone Guide: AT&T Edition. However, currently it only offers tiered data plan, with no unlimited plan available.
No data is currently available on the throughput of the network, though spokesman promised AT&T's 4G to be substantially faster than current 3G network. However, it should offer similar performance to T-Mobile's pseudo-4G HSPA+ network. (See T-Mobile)
Sprint's WiMAX is not fully 4G compliant. it's 3.9G. Next revision of WiMAX (WiMAX 2) will be full 4G. Coverage is available in over 40 metropolitan areas. See their coverage checker to see if your city is included.
WiMax, according to Sprint, offers 3-6 average Mbps throughput, with 10 Mbps peak. Gizmodo and other sites found the estimate to be accurate, but variable. It also does not transmit well inside buildings. Stay near a Window at all times.
Sprint offers some very good phones for decent prices and still offers a flat-rate data plan. For details, see 4G Phone Guide: Sprint Edition
T-Mobile already rolled out HSPA+ in about 75 cities and will expand to 100 cities by end of 2010. T-Mobile markets HSPA+ as 4G, but that's actually 3.5G, as it is based on the 3G standard HSPA, and not capable to reaching 4G throughput requirements. However, in tests, it is getting throughput as fast as the WiMAX or LTE. So "4G Speed" is not a complete lie, but it is NOT the truth either.
T-Mobile promises up to 21 Mbps downstream, with upgrade to 42 Mbps later. However, in a mobile broadband modem speed test in late 2010, T-Mobile HSPA+ lost to Sprint WiMax. Thus, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Also, different levels of HSPA+ requires different hardware. Thus far, there has been no HSPA+42 hardware on the US market.
T-Mobile offers a wide variety of so-called 4G phones (actually HSPA+21 phones) with various features. See 2011 4G Phone Guide: T-Mobile Edition for Details
Verizon announced LTE network will be up by December 5th, 2010, but rollout will be limited to 38 cities (that's 30 NFL cities plus a few). Technically LTE is not full 4G, but 3.9G. LTE-Advanced will be 4G. Check your LTE coverage here. Several phones and tablets have been announced at CES 2011.
Verizon promises 5-12 Mbps throughput and pre-launch tests indicates the network can easily exceed that. People are getting average of 8-9 Mbps download, beating all other 4G carriers.
Verizon offers the fewest 4G phones of all vendors: merely 3, and none of them are dual core. Not sure if the new Droid Bionic will change that. For more details, see 4G 2011 Phone guide: Verizon Edtion.
MetroPCS has limited LTE network in 12 cities around the country, but it performs like a 3G network, according to test results, and only two phones available. On the other hand, they are contract free flat-rate-per-month devices.
US Cellular issued a press release promising LTE service by year's end, but thus far there has been no details on deployment, much less devices available.
Cincinnati Bell now offers HSPA+ coverage in their own network and their own "4G" phone, the Huawei Ascend X 4G (HSPA+14).
It is possible to get the best smartphone on the market: Samsung Galaxy S II, by importing one straight from South Korea. However, it is $800+ USD, and it only works on AT&T's HSPA+21 network.
A note on LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA family
LTE is NOT compatible with WiMAX. They are completely different standards. You can make dual-transceiver phones or modems so it can work with multiple networks, but you can't make a phone designed for one network work on the other network.
And you certainly cannot make either LTE or WiMAX device talk to HSPA.
Furthermore, HSPA+ comes in multiple flavors: HSPA+14 (14 Mbps), HSPA+21, and HSPA+42. (For your information, regular HSPA is 8 Mbps). And they require hardware upgrades. You cannot make HSPA+21 device talk HSPA+42.
Should I Get a 4G Phone?
Actually there is no true 4G phone on the market, as explained before. 4G was just finalized in 2010 by ITU, then the definition was loosened and lessened in 2011. There is no equipment or phone doing true 4G yet.
All of the following are called 4G, but are not true 4G. Just keep that in mind.
AT&T (HSPA+21 now, LTE later)
AT&T announced several "4G" phones at CES 2011, but all are HSPA+21 devices. There is no consensus on whether they will go HSPA+42, or jump straight to LTE. Please see AT&T 4G Phone Guide
Because HSPA phones cannot be upgraded to HSPA+, nor can it be upgraded to LTE, if you buy a "4G" phone now, you will have to upgrade again in 2 years when AT&T finally start deploying HSPA+42 or LTE.
AT&T's 4G phones are relatively low cost, with some available under $100 with 2 year contract, even lower if you accept a refurbished phone instead. And these are not junk phones either, but a state-of-the-art Motorola Atrix 4G.
Recommendation: If you want one, go ahead, just beware when you go LTE you'll need to upgrade again. However, the HSPA+21 phones now available aren't bad. A refurbished Motorola Atrix 4G is as low as $49.95 with two year contract.
Verizon announced several 4G/LTE devices at CES 2011, and has since released several more. Its 4G LTE network has thus far consistently tested to have superior speed than any other 4G technology in real world conditions, besting all comers in mid-2011 tests around the US. However, Verizon had done away with unlimited data plan in July 2011 and this will affect your monthly costs.
Verizon 4G phones are expensive, at $200 or higher with 2 year contracts, and none of the phones are dual core. You will need new phones to use the LTE network. Please see Verizon Phone Guide
Recommendation: Verizon 4G phones are costly, but what you get with that is the highest mobile data speed possible. However, that will cost you.
Sprint covers 32-40 cities with WiMAX capabilities around the US as of late 2010, and regular 3G everywhere else. 4G phones are charged extra $10 a month, even if you are using the phone in an area with no 4G coverage. You'll just be using Sprint's 3G data network.
Sprint offers one of the best 4G phones on the market: the HTC EVO 3D, dual core, 3D camera, and 3D display, among other tricks. For details and other 4G phones, please see 4G Sprint Phone Guide
Recommendation: If it's offered in your city, go for it.
T-Mobile (HSPA+14 at first, HSPA+21 now, HSPA+42 later)
T-Mobile's HSPA+ (3.5G) claims to be rolled out in 100 metro areas before end of year. They are advertising it as "4G speed" but it is NOT 4G. Current HSPA phones are not upgradeable.
HSPA phones comes in three flavors: HSPA+14, HSPA+21, and HSPA+42. The first "4G" phones on T-Mobile are HSPA+14. The latest ones are HSPA+21. There are no HSPA+ 42 phones yet.
Recommendation: If your city has HSPA+ rolled out already, go for it. Just keep in mind that when next flavor of HSPA+ comes out, it's another upgrade, Then when the real 4G comes out, T-Mobile customers will have to upgrade yet again.
MetroPCS has limited 4G-level service, and only in some portions of Las Vegas and Dallas/Fort Worth area, with expansion coming soon. Without LTE, you will be using MetroPCS's 2.5G data network. The only phone MetroPCS have that is LTE compatible is Samsung Craft, a very advanced multimedia phone but not a smartphone. Its current Android phone, the LG Optimus M, is not 4G.
Cellular South have announced they intent to launch an LTE network as well, but thus far have no details.
In my opinion (and I admit I am a Verizon user), T-Mobile is the most deceptive of all major carriers regarding their "4G". Their HSPA+ was never 4G to start with, just 3.5G, and they are the first one to claim HSPA+ is "4G". Also, they are lumping together several levels of HSPA+ (14, 21, and later, 42) without any disclosure on just which phone is capable of what. AT&T is doing the same thing, but they are a bit more honest about it.
Most honest carrier? Sprint, with Verizon just behind. WiMAX and LTE are 4G level tech, and Sprint gets a better rating due to their wider selection of phones and unlimited data usage plan still available.
Which carrier should you go for? It depends on what your needs are.
Cheap "4G" HSPA+21 phones
HSPA+21 coverage limited, switch to LTE later means another upgrade
Best 4G performance out of LTE
Expensive phones, no unlimited data plan
Flat rate data plan, very good 4G phones
WiMAX coverage limited, not as fast as Verizon LTE
The most "4G" phones available, widest coverage
Throughput is not that 4G, have to upgrade later, lumps flavors of HSPA+ together
There is no real 4G phones on the market. There are a bunch of "almost 4G" phones marketed as 4G, and may give you faster connection at certain limited areas.
The market is still very much in flux, and changing rapidly as LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+ are rolled out to more cities in the US. However, the service is rare enough that paying for 4G feels superfluous.
If you can, you should wait until there is more competition in the 4G arena. You are usually locked into your carrier which limits your choices. If you want to switch, consider moving to a flat rate major carrier such as Sprint or T-Mobile. Just keep in mind that with T-Mobile you will need to switch again when they move to LTE (eventually).
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kschang (author) from San Francisco, CA, USA on February 02, 2012:
@KJ -- the "honesty" statement I think was from Gigaom's test throughout territories that had both, but that test was like a year old at least. Things may have gotten better for HSPA+ since.
Sprint itself is moving away from WiMAX and transitioning to LTE.
KJ on February 02, 2012:
A lot of your info and comments are valid. I agree there's no "true" 4g on the market.
However, your comments about Sprint being more honest than T-Mobile are way off. Have you looked at real-world speed test results?
Example: my friend brought his Sprint Wimax hotspot over to my house. He connected his laptop to it and went to speedtest.net. His download speed results were between 1 and 2 Mbps every time. He then switched to my T-Mo HTC Amaze's hotspot and used the Amaze's T-Mobile "4g". His speedtest results ranged from 13 Mbps to 5 Mbps. In other words, in the real world, good HSPA+ stomps wimax into the dirt, and I live three blocks from Sprint's operational headquarters in Reston, Virginia. Maybe it's different somewhere else, but it's not as if I live in an area that's known for poor Sprint service or great T-Mobile service.
LTE is definitely the best technology, mainly because it has better upload speeds and pings. Beyond that, I'd pick HSPA+ over wimax without thinking twice. As for "honesty," I think they're all about the same; they all try to present their devices and services in the best light. The guy at the T-Mobile store told me clearly which phones did 14.4, which did 21 and which did 42. Of course - no phone (including LTE phones) is likely to do better than about 50% of its advertised max speed.
John on November 05, 2011:
Is 4G LTE Speed Worth The Price Of The LTE Phone? http://www.fourgltephones.com
carlos melara on October 18, 2011:
Pretty good article.. I learned a lot out it.. thanks for all the information.
SA on September 09, 2011:
This is one of the best 4G/3G/HSPA consumer article i have read and helped me in choosing the right phone and service..