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What You Need to Know About 4G - updated

What You Need to Know About 4G - UPDATED
Apple has yet to release a 4G phone but that didn’t stop over 30% of iPhone owners in last summer's Retrevo Gadgetology study from saying they already have a 4G phone. The fact is there is a lot of confusion about 4G and adding to the confusion is T-Mobile and AT&T who currently offer “4G” phones and market their HSPA+ service as 4G despite that fact that it doesn’t come close to officially qualifying as 4G (in their defense, the ITU gave them permission to go ahead with that label). Even some of the “real” 4G networks like Verizon and AT&T’s LTE, or Sprint’s WiMAX don’t qualify as 4G under the “official” data rate standard although the "official" standard has been updated to reconcile this. With the growing number of 4G devices, we thought the time was right to clear up some facts about what 4G is and what it means to you.
How Fast is 4G?
The good news is that as 4G arrives in phones, tablets and other mobile devices it has the potential to make network connectivity feel like a home broadband Internet connection or better. The bad news is that it's taking time to fully deploy 4G in the U.S. and the phones are just now starting to become more widely available with the elusive 4G LTE iPhone being a notable exception. Compounding the bad news is the fact that the high speed 4G access will come at a price since the major carriers have stopped offering unlimited service in favor of a tiered data plan.

It's hard to specify a speed for wireless standards since throughput varies so much under different conditions but in general it looks like LTE could provide an experience similar if not superior to what you get on your home broadband Internet connection.

  Typical Real-World
Data Rates
Status Carriers
3G 1 Mbps Current All major carriers
HSPA+ 8 Mbps Deployed AT&T, T-Mobile
WiMAX 8 Mbps Deployed Sprint
LTE 10 - 15 Mbps Partially Deployed Verizon, AT&T, Metro PCS
LTE Advanced 100 Mbps Future (2013)  
Home Broadband 3 Mbps Current  
Despite higher theoretical data rates of 100 Mbps for LTE, 40 Mbps for WiMAX and over 20 Mbps for HSPA+, in real world operation, T-Mobile's HSPA+ averages around 6 – 10 Mbps with some users reporting up to 25 Mbps downloads. A faster version of HSPA+ that uses dual cells called DC-HSPA+ claims to boost downlink speeds 70% to a theoretical 42 Mbps. Sprint’s WiMAX users also report average rates of 5 – 10 Mbps. LTE can theoretically run at 100 Mbps although Verizon is claiming an average of 5 – 15 Mbps with users reporting similar results including higher bursts. By comparison, 3G download data rates typically run around 1 Mbps. The next generation 4G standard called LTE advanced could boost speeds 10X bringing data rates up to a theoretical 1Gbps but real world use will mostly likely be around 100 Mbps which is still 10 times faster than LTE (non-advanced). Wi-Fi (802.11n) can deliver around 300 Mbps but your ISP (and the local coffee shop) is probably limiting that substantially to 2 – 5 Mbps although speeds could be as high as 20 Mbps or more at home or work if you're paying for premium service
How Much Will 4G Cost?
How Much Data do You Use Every Month? Data per Month
Send or Receive 10 text-based email a day 3MB
Load 10 web pages a day 300MB
Listen to an hour of streamed music a day 1.5GB
Watch 10 hours of low-res streaming video a month 7GB
Watch 10 hours of high-res streaming video a month 20GB
Upload 100 photos a month 100MB
* Based on Verizon 4G Mobile Broadban Data Usage Calculator
Just like 3G, you’ll need a 4G data plan in addition to a “talk” plan and the price for a 4G data plan should be the same as a 3G plan. Sprint is still offering an unlimited “everything” plan for around $80 while AT&T and Verizon have switched to tiered data plans that start at 2 GBs (or lower). If you can manage within the 2 GB first tier data plan you may only have to pay around $25 - $30 a month for moving that much data over a 4G network otherwise you can end up spending over $80 a month for 10 GB and more. MetroPCS has an LTE network that is currently limited to a handful of metropolitan areas but they offer unlimited data plans for around $40 a month. One trend we see developing is to let users move lots of data while throttling the data rate depending on the amount of data.

Verizon has a data calculator on their site that provides a feel for what you might get for your money in gigabytes (GBs). If you want to see how much data you're using right now there are apps like Onavo or Dataman on the iPhone or 3G Watchdog or My Data Manager for Android

Which Carrier Has the Best 4G?
Sprint was the first U.S. carrier to come to market with a 4G network using WiMAX. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like WiMAX may make it for the long haul as LTE appears to be more widely adopted and gaining momentum fast. Verizon was out ahead of the pack deploying their LTE network while AT&T and T-Mobile concentrated on an HSPA+ network. Verizon now claims to have over 190 cities covered and says by 2013 their LTE network will exceed their 3G network. AT&T says their HSPA+ network currently matches their 3G network and has also announced they are accelerating the deployment of their LTE network saying they currently cover 28 markets.
AT&T May Have the Best “Fallback” Solution
Every LTE phone currently needs a fallback network to use when 4G isn’t available. Verizon phones fall back to their 3G EVDO network but AT&T phones fall back to a much faster HSPA+ network which could be a big advantage for AT&T however, some say that by the time LTE networks are fully deployed (sometime in 2013), fallback schemes will be less relevant. We still think it should be something to consider when deciding which 4G phone to buy, at least this year.
Battery Drain is Major Complaint
A common complaint among 4G phone owners is poor battery life. Most blame falls on issues around the radio and the fact that the phone needs to maintain two modes; one for data and the other for voice and messaging. Compounding the problem is the fact that with few cell towers, the phones bump up their power and spend more time seeking a signal. Hopefully the issues creating poor battery life in 4G LTE phones will be resolved or larger capacity batteries will be used.
Voice and SMS Don’t Work on LTE Right Now
LTE networks were originally intended for data only with voice and messaging using older 3G or 2G standards. In order to support voice and messaging under LTE there will need to be a new standard. A  standard currently being developed by wireless providers Verizon, Nokia, Ericsson, Vodafone and others looks promising as a universal standard to make voice and messaging work over an all digital LTE network. One Voice Initiative’s “Voice over LTE” (VoLTE) has wide backing which could help speed the adoption of this new standard.
LTE Is Going to Be Great…Eventually
LTE has a lot going for it; it’s faster, uses wider radio channels and uses bandwidth more efficiently allowing carriers to offer better service to more customers with fewer towers. As the new 700MHz spectrum gets incorporated into the LTE infrastructure, service should get even better. The only hitch is it may take just a little while longer for all the pieces to fall into place
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