4G, or fourth-generation, wireless technology, expected to be touted this week at the annual show of CTIA, the wireless trade association, will mean faster Internet access and speedier downloads for cell phone users.
Sprint, the nation's third-largest carrier with 48.1 million customers, has a head start with a WiMAX 4G network, now in more than two dozen cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Seattle. At CTIA, Sprint is expected to unveil its first smartphone specifically designed to take advantage of 4G's speed.
"I give them credit for being for being the first ones out there," said Peter Jarich, Current Analysis' research director for telecom infrastructure and mobile networks.
Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless carrier, with 91.1 million customers, will start rolling out its 4G network in some cities toward the end of the year. AT&T, with 85.1 million subscribers, will do so in some markets in early 2011. T-Mobile, with 33.8 million subscribers, does not have the wireless spectrum needed for 4G, but is looking for a way to provide it, possibly with a partner.
In the meantime, AT&T and T-Mobile continue to work on improving and expanding their 3G, or third-generation, wireless networks, which will continue to be crucial to customers who want to use their smartphones for activities like Web surfing and e-mail.
Fatter data pipe
4G means a fatter pipe for data, which means smoother and faster downloading or sharing of large files, such as movies or music. Try watching a YouTube video on a 3G phone now, for example, and even that can be a rather herky-jerky experience, with video sometimes halting and stuttering along the way.
ABI Research practice director Philip Solis said generally, 3G transmits data at a rate of between 500 kilobits per second and 1.5 megabits per second, and 4G is between 2 to 5 megabits per second — "very roughly, not talking peaks nor averages."
"With 4G, Internet access starts to feel like a home broadband connection — although a slower home broadband connection like DSL," he said.
Verizon Wireless said Friday that its early trials of 4G are "showing peak download speeds of 40 to 50 megabits per second and peak upload speeds of 20 to 25 megabits per second." The carrier said it "expects (4G) average data rates of 5 to 12 megabits per second on the downlink and 2 to 5 megabits per second on the uplink in real-world environments."
Two different approaches
Sprint is tying its 4G future to WiMAX technology, while Verizon Wireless and AT&T are going with another technology known Long Term Evolution (LTE).
Advocates of each are passionate, and some carriers' decisions are based, in part, on what will work best with their existing infrastructure and spectrum. (The same kind of decision-making is going on in Europe as carriers there plan for 4G.)LTE is considered to be more backward compatible than WiMAX for those with 3G devices, but even there, disputes reign.
Robert Syputa, senior analyst for Maravedis Telecom Market Research & Analysis, wrote in a report that the primary differences between LTE and WiMAX "are the differences in upbringing: like close cousins, there are deep blood ties between the two standards, (similar frameworks of technology), but the ‘families’ that have raised them are different: different goals and different means."
Sprint is using Clearwire, a Kirkland-Wash. based company, to provide WiMAX. Sprint owns 56.6 percent of Clearwire; other Clearwire partners include Time-Warner Cable, Comcast, Intel and Google.
Sprint says WiMAX will cover a population of 120 million by the end of this year, including Boston, Houston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
"Sprint/Clearwire has been going city by city," said Allen Nogee, In-Stat Research wireless and infrastructure technology analyst. "It's going to take some time — another three to four years — before most cities will be covered."
Verizon Wireless "should be deploying a few cities with LTE by the end of 2010. It will likely take until around 2014 for most of its network to be up and running, especially in smaller cities.
"I don’t think AT&T will start realistically deploying LTE until the end of 2011 or more likely 2012, and its not likely T-Mobile will deploy until after that date. In most countries, and especially in the United States, with it being so large, it will take four to five years to fully deploy a WiMAX or LTE network."
AT&T 3G upgrade
That's one of the reasons that AT&T's major upgrade to its 3G service, underway now, is so crucial, especially for its data-hungry iPhone customers.
AT&T is the exclusive carrier in the United States of the popular device which accounts for 25.3 percent of the smartphone market, according to recent research from comScore.
AT&T is putting in place what is known as High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 technology in 25 of the country's 30 largest markets by the end of this year, and will have about 90 percent of its 3G network covered by HSPA 7.2 by the end of next year.
Users might see top download speeds of 7.2 megabits per second, AT&T says, about twice as fast as they may be getting on AT&T's current 3G network.
"Over the course of 2010 and 2011, AT&T plans to combine this upgrade with enhanced fiber-optic backhaul connectivity, which will support a considerable boost in 3G speeds as well as future LTE service," AT&T said in a recent statement.
iPad will use HSPA 7.2
Along with HSPA 7.2 are devices that can benefit from the speed improvement. AT&T says it carries 10 of them, including the iPhone 3GS, released last summer, and Apple's new iPad, due out next month.
"Our competitors are rushing to their (4G) implementation because they have to; we are in a much better position," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. "We continue to invest in our 3G network, to improve it."
Siegel said AT&T will test 4G this year, with the "beginning of commercial rollouts next year. We think that’s the really smart approach, because our implementation of 4G will arrive at the time the industry ecosystem is more in place with devices, chipsets, applications and so on."
New Sprint phone
It's devices that draw customers, which is why the past several days has brought some buzz about Sprint's dual-mode 3G/4G phone, expected to be from HTC and run on the Android operating system.
Since Sprint launched WiMAX, first in Baltimore in October 2008, the carrier has used a variety of ways to provide WiMAX, including modems, laptop cards, and starting in January of this year, a mobile hotspot.
The "Overdrive" 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, made by Sierra Wireless and resembling a small router, can connect up to five Wi-Fi devices at the same time, including laptops, gaming devices and even smartphones from other carriers. "Make your iPhone 4G," Sprint brags on its Web site.
The Overdrive costs $100, after a rebate and with a two-year contract. The monthly plan is $59.99 for unlimited 4G usage, Sprint says, and a 5-gigabyte cap for 3G usage.
It's not known yet what 4G rates will be on Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
"If the past is any indication, operators won’t charge subscribers more for 4G than they have been charging for 3G," said Nogee of In-Stat Research. He believes pricing may continue to hover in the $60-a-month range it is now for 5 gigabytes of usage via mobile broadband cards and USB dongles for laptops and netbooks.
"Wireless 4G can really also compete with wired broadband (such as cable and DSL) in many instances," he said.
"Over time, I think that 5 gigabytes of access may eventually cost in the $30- to $40-a-month range. But I also think its very likely that operators might start promoting other plans which limit data and/or speed in exchange for cheaper prices."
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