After years of faithful service, 3G mobile “broadband” appears to be giving up the ghost. Perhaps its new applications that demand more performance, or maybe the network is overloaded and the carriers are unable or unwilling to fix it, but 3G data service has become unusable lately. I set out to find something faster.
Not Quite 4G, Really
You should also read 4G: Is It Really A Standard If No One Cares?
Although many mobile phone carriers are advertising their new 4G networks, none is quite as speedy as that term was designed to describe. Even so, the “4G” mobile broadband services I tested were head and shoulders above any 3G system I have ever experienced, and I feel that they deserve the name even though they’re nowhere near the 100 Mb per second suggested by the ITU.
Here in the United States, there are three networks called “4G”:
- T-Mobile USA operates an HSPA+ network with broad coverage and good performance, even though the underlying technology is really an evolution of 3G data.
- Clearwire is the sole operator of a WiMAX network that is up and running in many cities. This same network is sold under the Clear and Sprint brand names.
- Verizon has been aggressively rolling out an LTE network, and has been aggressively marketing the service.
All three networks boast maximum speed of over 100 Mb per second, with typical real-world performance around 5 Mb per second. The WiMAX and LTE networks also boast incredibly quick “data call” setup time and very low latency thanks to an all IP network design.
Much is changing in the mobile broadband industry, however. The future of WiMAX is looking increasingly shaky, with all American and most international carriers planning or deploying LTE networks. And AT&T’s pending acquisition of T-Mobile USA is all about spectrum, which will become the most important commodity in a 4G world.
A few years ago, it looked like WiMAX might be the standard for 4G data, with strong support from Intel and many major telecom providers. But actually implementing WiMAX networks proved incredibly costly, and most trials have wound down or stalled at launch.
In the USA, all WiMAX providers joined forces to form Clearwire in an effort to consolidate their spectrum and build a seamless national network. Now, Clearwater has announced that they will build out an LTE network in that same spectrum. Although they claim continuing support for WiMAX technology, this announcement calls its future into question.
In contrast, LTE has been phenomenally successful. Verizon’s deployment continues unabated, AT&T is committed to the standard, and newcomer LightSquared is building out a national network in the USA. Aggressive build outs of also been seen in Australia, Asia, Canada, Germany, and other areas.
The most valuable commodity for any network buildout is radio spectrum, and high-performance communication requires lots of it. Verizon has a strong head start in the US, with plenty of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band, and Clearwire has plenty of capacity between 2.5 and 2.6 GHz. But AT&T needs more spectrum, explaining their pending purchase of T-Mobile USA.
No LTE Portability
Although LTE networks will share some common technology, those hoping for “4G world phones” will likely be disappointed. Like 3G data, 4G spectrum is widely distributed based on availability of spectrum in local areas. And 4G networks are built without voice support, so actual phones will fallback to incompatible 3G or even 2G networks for calls. Portable devices must support multiple bands and underline networking technologies.
I wrote about 3G data portability in An Inexpensive Mobile Broadband Alternative When Traveling in the UK
LTE networks are being deployed wherever sufficient bandwidth is available. In North America, most LTE networks will use spectrum in the 700, 1700, and 2500 MHz bands. European networks will be deployed at 900, 1800, and 2600 MHz. Asia will likely see 1800, and 2600 MHz deployments. A true world phone would need to support at least six different frequency bands, not to mention a variety of signaling technologies.
Since it is entirely packet-switched, LTE has no provision for carrying voice traffic currently. Today’s 4G mobile phones fall back to a carrier’s legacy network when it comes to making a call, and some even have multiple radio chipsets to make this possible. Future devices will use voice over IP (VoIP) technology, but these are still a ways off.
One imagines that truly portable devices will eventually appear, perhaps using software defined radio (SDR) or simply by employing extremely full-featured chipsets and antennas. But 4G networks are more about mobile broadband and voice calling at this point, and this is their sweet spot anyway.
I set out to find a faster mobile broadband service than the AT&T and Sprint/Virgin service I currently use. But exploring the world of LTE and WiMAX was a real eye-opener. I didn’t purchase a device (two, actually), but discussion of those will have to wait for my next post.
Read my follow-up posts: