True 4G standards still years off

| Friday, July 2, 2010

If you're like most people, you don't give a second thought to the little icons that dot the top of your mobile phone screen. Sometimes they will read "EV" or "3G"; sometimes they will say "1x" or "2G." This indicates the network technology your phone is connecting to. If you're a smartphone user, you know the data transfer rate of a 3G connection is faster. Browsing the Internet on a 2G connection is painful. But that angst might soon be a thing of the past: New technologies promise far higher Internet connections on mobile devices. 4G has arrived.

Let's look at the technology itself.

The term 4G is simply an abbreviation for "Fourth Generation" network. 1G was released in the early 1980s -- analog voice. 2G came out in the early 1990s -- the switch to digital. 3G was the first revision to offer multimedia support when it arrived in 2002. 4G promises gigabit data speeds, which will allow for transmission of real-time video over mobile devices, and true broadband access virtually anywhere.

Sprint recently announced the availability of its 4G network based on a technology known as WiMAX. What they don't tell you is that while the data rate of their network is considerably greater than that offered by 3G networks, it doesn't yet meet international 4G standards. Later revisions of the technology will boost the data rate to true 4G standards in the next few years.

Also irksome is the fact that it has limited availability; at present, it's only in major metropolitan areas.

Verizon and AT&T's upcoming networks are based on a technology called LTE (Long Term Evolution). Again, this is not true 4G technology but can be upgraded to comply with the 4G standard. Verizon claims it will have its entire network up to snuff with 4G data by 2013. In the meantime, your shiny new 4G device has full 3G capability.

One interesting side effect of these changes is that while right now Sprint and Verizon use a compatible network technology (CDMA) that is not widely used in Europe, the switch to LTE and WiMAX will allow future Verizon phones to roam in Rome, as it were. As it stands, there is only one "4G phone" on the U.S. market, and it's not an iPhone. It's the HTC Evo by Sprint.

User impressions of the 4G technology are fairly uniform: If they can get it, they love it, but it drains battery power rapidly.

What does this mean for you?

For now, nothing. A year or two into the future, however, the picture changes: Routine video calls from your phone. Integrated broadband access on most laptops. 4G home Internet service. Eventually, unified wireless services may arrive that offer television, Internet and mobile service (it will all be the same thing) as one package with no wires attached. The strings, however, will be dependent on the provider.

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