On Tuesday, Verizon Wireless announced that they had finally wrestled iPhone 4 exclusivity from AT&T’s shackles after four years. Unfortunately, aside from swapping a GSM antenna for a CDMA model, the 3G-enabled handset is essentially the same — despite Verizon’s big push for 4G LTE a week earlier at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
“4G” has become something of an industry buzzword in recent months, promising to finally bring broadband speeds to wireless mobile devices. Never mind the fact that the carriers had previously promised broadband speeds with 3G — the current push for 4G is a bit like Hollywood selling the DVD format it launched in 1997 as “high definition” for so many years, then trying to push it aside in favor of the real deal with Blu-ray (which has taken forever to catch on).
Much in the same way that Hollywood initially squabbled over HD-DVD and Blu-ray as the superior format to bring HD to the masses, the mobile industry is currently embroiled in a similar splintering with the term 4G, which actually refers to two distinct technologies: WiMAX and LTE. Ironically, neither of these wireless technologies actually qualify as “4G” in the eyes of the International Telecommunication Union, but that hasn’t stopped the carriers’ marketing departments from capitalizing on the term anyway.
For would-be iPhone 4 buyers about to buy into Verizon’s newest offering, the bad news is your handset of choice is still hopelessly locked into the older 3G standard, and a potentially slower one at that — Verizon’s CDMA-based 3G network might be more widespread than rival AT&T’s, but the original iPhone carrier has frequently beat Big Red in speed tests. AT&T also gets an extra point (or two) for the capability to surf the internet and talk at the same tim over 3G, which isn’t currently possible with Verizon.
All that aside, 4G is clearly the path to the future, which is expected to ramp up adoption quickly in 2012, which is also when analysts anticipate Apple will take the plunge with what will presumably be called iPhone 6 by then — this year’s model is expected to be a modest refresh of the iPhone 4, much in the same way 2009’s iPhone 3GS was a spec bump from the 2008 iPhone 3G.
Let’s take a look at the competing technologies and what they mean to you.
Developed jointly by Intel, Motorola and Samsung, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (aka WiMAX) was the first 4G mobile broadband network out of the gate here in the U.S., thanks to early nationwide adoption by Clearwire, of which carrier Sprint owns the majority share — 51 percent, to be exact, with the rest filled out by the likes of Google, Intel, Comcast, Bright House and Time Warner.
The WiMAX Forum, first formed in 2001, describes the service as “a standards-based technology enabling the delivery of last mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL.” WiMAX is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard first established in 1999, which means it has more in common with the Wi-Fi we all know and love, and is available in both fixed and mobile variations.
Clear, the public face of Clearwire, promises average speeds of three to six Mbps and bursts over 10 Mbps, claiming that “WiMAX allows you to stream movies, play online games and video chat on the go.” The downside is that you’ll have to be in one of 75 cities in 28 states of the continental United States (as well two cities in Hawaii) to take advantage of WiMAX. The company also offers 3G, although that coverage is spottier than larger carriers such as Verizon or AT&T.
Being the scrappy upstart, Clear touts price as a key advantage over their rivals, offering unlimited 4G data usage for only $35 per month (or $55 per month for both unlimited 3G and 4G), as well as both month to month and two-year agreements. By comparison, Verizon’s new 4G LTE starts at $50 per month for 5GB of data usage — there is no unlimited data, and you’ll be locked into a two-year agreement.
Clear’s partner Sprint stakes claim to being the “first wireless 4G network from a national carrier,” having released the EVO 4G last year, which takes advantage of both EV-DO 3G and WiMAX 4G to allow simultaneous voice and data — something the company’s 3G handsets lack for the same reason (CDMA limitation) that the iPhone 4 on Verizon does.
LTE (Long-Term Evolution) started out as the work of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the standards group also responsible for both GSM/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA-based 3G. With peak downlink data rates of “at least” 100 Mbps and an uplink in the 50 Mbps range, the main advantages of LTE are high throughput, low latency, plug and play and an improved end-user experience.
In short, it’s fast — fast enough to replace broadband in many homes. More importantly, LTE was designed to be backward compatible with existing GSM and HSPA networks — including the need for a SIM card, which WiMAX devices do not require.
Verizon, AT&T and MetroPCS are all rolling out 4G LTE networks, which is based on the GSM technology used here in the U.S. by T-Mobile and AT&T, as well as most other parts of the world. The process will be far easier for AT&T, although surprisingly, the telco has been slow to adopt the faster technology — after some LTE trials last year, the company plans an initial launch by the middle of this year in limited areas.
LTE is a much bigger challenge for Verizon, who essentially has to overly the technology onto their current CDMA-based network, allowing both new and old customers and handsets to continue to work. Despite this technical challenge, Verizon has beat AT&T at their own game and took advantage of CES 2011 earlier this month to do a major push for the new technology, which has been three years in the making.
Verizon launched their 4G LTE network on December 5 in 38 major markets, estimating coverage for 100 million people out of the gate. At the moment, the only available hardware are two USB modems from LG and Pantech (both of which require Windows to use), but the first 4G LTE smartphone, the HTC ThunderBolt, was announced at CES 2011, with others to come from Samsung and LG — as well as an update to the Samsung Galaxy Tab slate which will bring an LTE radio to the tablet.
Better yet, Verizon plans to cover two-thirds of the U.S. population with 4G LTE by the middle of 2012 — right around the time many predict Apple’s first LTE-powered iPhone.
We’ve ladled out plenty of information on LTE (Verizon and AT&T) and WiMAX (Sprint and Clear), but what about T-Mobile, who claims to have the largest 4G network nationwide?
In reality, T-Mobile’s “4G” isn’t — it’s basically the same HSPA+ 3G network with the speed ratcheted up (anywhere from three to 12 Mbps, depending on where you live). Of course, iPhone users can only access the T-Mobile network with a jailbroken and unlocked handset, and even then at EDGE speeds, since T-Mobile uses a slightly different GSM radio — so it’s not much of a temptation for iOS users just yet.
Regardless of what it’s called, the technologies commonly known as 4G are actually more similar than the carriers might have you believe. For instance, WiMAX and LTE are both IP-based (like the Wi-Fi at your home or work), rather than simply devices registered as a mobile phone on a carrier’s network. That’s familiar territory for WiMAX since it’s based on the same protocol as Wi-Fi, but it’s a big departure from the GSM standard at the heart of LTE.
Perhaps the best way to compare the technologies can be summed up in an extensive article featured on GoingWiMAX.com from September, 2009. “WiMAX is more of an open internet service and its devices will be compatible with most all internet devices,” the website notes. “LTE, on the other hand, is more exclusive to certain ISPs.”
When viewed from that perspective, it makes sense that the two largest U.S. carriers, Verizon and AT&T, have both adopted LTE for their respective 4G networks. While LTE may be less open, it’s technically faster, and with a combined customer base of 182 million customers, it would seem that WiMAX has an uphill battle ahead if it hopes to stake a claim to the next generation of 4G users.