The term 4G has been coming up more and more frequently with regard to mobile data service. People generally know that it promises to be better than 3G but are rather fuzzy on what it actually means. Let s see if we can clear up some of the confusion and offer a brief status report on where we stand on the whole issue.

A Tale of Two Standards

It s not uncommon for technical standards and marketing spin to refer to two very different levels of performance by a common name. This is certainly the case with 4G. From an official standpoint, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines what such terms mean in technical terms. The ITU, an agency of the United Nations, creates and coordinates global communication standards. Six distinct technologies have been submitted to the ITU to receive the official designation but, in general, their definition of true 4G refers to wireless connections that can achieve at least 100MB of data transmission for highly mobile devices like cell phones and laptop computers with a wireless data card. It sets the standard at up to a gigabyte for low mobility applications, i.e. something akin to Wi-Fi hotspots.

That s a long way from the 4G products that are being tested and even marketed by U.S. cell phone providers. The definition that they re using is far less specific or ambitious than that of the ITU. In consumer terms, 4G, or 4th Generation, means little more than the next step after 3G. Still, the data transfer speeds that are being attained do represent remarkable progress. Sprint is the only American carrier that has a deployed 4G network at this writing and they re attaining average user speeds of 4-6MB with peaks exceeding 10MB. That s a long way from the ITU s 100MB standard, but remarkable compared to the 1MB speed that is typical of 3G under very good circumstances. Verizon Wireless hasn t yet deployed a 4G network but a recent Boston test attained download speeds around 8.5MB and uploads around 2MB.

WiMax and LTE

In the United States, there are essentially two technologies in the 4G running. Sprint, in conjunction with partner Clear, is already deploying a WiMax 4G network. As of May 2010, Sprint has 4G coverage in 38 markets with projected additions in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Pittsburgh by the end of 2010. Up to now, taking advantage of the technology has required the use of either a mobile broadband card or the Overdrive Mobile Hotspot. Interest in 4G is increasing perceptively as the June 4th release date of the HTC EVO 4G nears. It will be the first 4G-enabled cell phone to be released in the U.S. by a major carrier.

LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution, is the 4G technology in direct competition with WiMax. While Sprint is the only major carrier tying its fortunes to WiMax, both Verizon Wireless and AT&T are working towards LTE-based networks. Real-world deployment of their networks is minimally a year behind that of Sprint. Whether one technology ultimately wins out, or if the two attain peaceful coexistence, remains to be seen. We can t help but hope that, unlike the fabled VHS/BetaMax wars of years past, the superior technology prevails in this case.

New cell phone releases can create a bit of confusion regarding things that are affected by 4G technology. It s worth noting that 4G refers to data download and upload rates and has no effect on voice calling. Secondly, there s a lot of talk right now about the anticipated release of Apple s iPhone 4G. This device is not 4G in the sense of this article, but rather is merely the 4th generation of the iPhone device.

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