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Phone buyer beware: 4G may not be for you

One day, we'll all have phones that pull data from networks that are labeled "4G." But right now, there are plenty of reasons you may want to avoid it.
This screenshot from Sprint's 4G marketing campaign shows videos of the things you can do with the carrier's 4G network, including stream HD videos over the air.
This screenshot from Sprint's 4G marketing campaign shows videos of the things you can do with the carrier's 4G network, including stream HD videos over the air.Sprint

One day, we'll all have phones that pull data from networks that are labeled "4G." But right now, there are plenty of reasons you may want to avoid it.

I was out last week with my brother-in-law, shopping for smart phones and djembe drums. (Well, what did you shop for on Black Friday?) He's a Palm Pre user who wants to make the shift to Android. He's a loyal Sprint customer who likes his $69.99-per-month "unlimited" data plan with 450 talk minutes, and is ready and willing to pop $250 on a new handset, re-upping his two-year contract in the process. He's basically the customer who Sprint should strive to keep happy at every turn. But alas, this Black Friday, my brother-in-law walked away unhappy, old phone still in hand. Why? Because the Samsung Epic 4G comes with a $10-per-month "advanced data" surcharge, what for lack of a better term we'll call Sprint's 4G tax.

It may cost you extra
Sprint's been pushing its 4G data for laptop users since last year, and it's for people who have the funding for a specific task: Getting better-than-typical cellular download speeds in certain locations. If 3G devices give you 1 to 3 megabits per second on average, Sprint's 4G only promises 3 to 6 Mbps, with peaks up to 10. And that's only if you are in an area where you get good 4G reception, another matter altogether.

Devices like the Overdrive, which creates a Wi-Fi network out of thin air, are not perfect, but in the cellular world, nothing is perfect, and when it's working well, you can feel it on your laptop. People who buy cellular broadband access get what they pay for, and generally know what they're getting.

But this summer, Sprint started selling 4G phones. That's a whole different ball of cheese. People who shop for Sprint's HTC Evo and Samsung Epic want a hot phone with a prime processor and screen, the latest Android. They don't necessarily want the 4G connectivity. Other carriers have similarly boss handsets that run on their 3G networks. They just want something to show off to friends who own Droids (or even iPhones). If given the choice, many Sprint customers like my brother-in-law would probably say "To heck with 4G, just give me an Epic with a 3G plan." Unfortunately, there's no such deal. I checked.

Sprint's party line is that the $10 per month tacked on to the $69 or $99 unlimited monthly plans are not for the 4G but for "advanced data" services that the phones deliver. While this may be true, there are no Sprint 3G phones that carry the surcharge, and there are no Sprint 4G phones that do not. So anyone buying one of the hottest two phones at Sprint right now have to commit to an additional $240 over the next two years, even if they know full well they won't take advantage of the "advanced data" services, even if they figure out what those are.

T-Mobile is the only other carrier currently marketing "4G" smart phones, the MyTouch 4G and the G2, but since its 4G network is a technical extension of its 3G network, and not a whole new technology like Sprint's, T-Mo doesn't charge you more.

It's not always noticeable
This is the problem: 4G isn't very noticeable when you're doing every day activities. E-mails and websites depend far more on coverage area and responsiveness (measured by latency), rather than sheer download speeds. Even YouTube videos, as compressed as they are for delivery to mobile devices, don't benefit dramatically from a 4G connection.

It's only when you get into specific video applications that it starts to matter. Video conferencing, something that may come of age next year, benefits from as much bandwidth as it can get. This is why Apple forces its proprietary video conferencing system, FaceTime, to only work over Wi-Fi. (Other video conferencing apps can run over the iPhone's 3G connection, but the quality is generally considered to range between "yuck" and "you gotta be kidding.") Sprint's Evo and Epic do support video conferencing, and come preloaded with the Qik software. But it's not the driver for most would-be buyers of these phones. It's probably not even in the top five.

Streaming movies is a little bit more of a likely draw. The Epic, in particular, comes with Samsung's Media Hub, and if you can find a movie you actually want to see, it looks very nice. But the selection of movie and TV programs is embarrassingly skimpy, and there's no Netflix or Hulu Plus to supplement it. (A Netflix engineer recently spoke out on this, saying it's because Android, which powers both the Evo and Epic, isn't secure enough for a single app for all handsets.)

So while there may be a time when everybody is video conferencing and streaming DVD-quality movies straight out of the sky, now is not that time. Not yet.

The only people who should specifically be seeking out a 4G phone are people who were smart enough not to buy a standalone wireless modem. Buying an Evo or Epic, or T-Mobile's MyTouch 4G or G2, with the intent to use it as a mobile hotspot for your laptop and other devices — that makes sense. But if you play by the rules, you have to pay a lot extra per month to tether. If you can't justify it as a business expense, you probably can't justify it at all.

It may not be in your area
Despite the fact that buildout on Sprint's network has been underway for several years, it still doesn't cover every city, though it's getting there. And that 4G network is tricky: Even if you're in a city that's covered, your suburb may not be. (Here's Sprint's coverage map.)

If you commute, by bus or train, from an area without Sprint 4G to an area with it, things get weirder. Every time the phone or modem has to switch from one to the other, things slow down, and sometimes you lose your network connection all together. So unless you're squarely within a known Sprint 4G region, you may experience frustration.

T-Mobile's is a little different, since it's an extension of the carrier's 3G network. But even then, the 4G speeds may not be available everywhere, so it's worth checking.

It doesn't mean anything specific
The worst thing about this 4G business is that it doesn't refer to any particular technology or even a particular speed. Sprint uses a technology called WiMax, AT&T and Verizon Wireless are soon rolling out a 4G technology called LTE, and T-Mobile recently started calling their HSPA+ network 4G. All of these guarantee different performance and different speeds. And to make it more complicated, some people are claiming that none — none! — of the above technologies are true 4G. I'll side with them, if it will make all the marketing nonsense go away.

What needs to happen eventually is what already happens with home broadband: Services will need to be marketed by speed, rather than underlying technology. Rather than saying cable, DSL or horseless telegraph, just tell me, is it 15Mbps or 5Mbps? Will I be able to stream HD video while surfing the Web or won't I? That's how things work in the home broadband, but the wireless business will be a lot cagier for at least a few years to come.

So, for now, do not go and get suckered in by some sales pitch about how everything is twice as fast on a 4G phone. If you're at Sprint, demand that the carrier gives you a sweet Epic or Evo with a 3G plan, see if they'll eventually bend. If you're on T-Mobile, definitely check out the G2 and MyTouch 4G, but don't let the 4G label sway you if you kinda like the 3G models better. And when Verizon and AT&T roll out their 4G products, pay attention to the fine print. Ask specifically about speeds and video applications. And be sensible like my brother-in-law: If you're not going to use more, don't pay for more.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or sound off on our very special Technolog Facebook page. If you are a Sprint user who has figured out a way around the 4G tax, you're under legal obligation to share your trick.