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The 4G myth: what you need to know

Consumer Reports News: December 17, 2010 11:59 AM

The HTC Evo 4G
Photo: Sprint

Is T-Mobile right in claiming its high-speed data network is "4G," meaning fourth-generation technology—the new brass ring of the telecom world? Technically speaking, no, and neither Verizon nor Sprint can make that claim either.

But should you care? Not as much as the carriers might have you think.

In recent months, the media (including me) have reported that Sprint's WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and Verizon's LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technologies are true 4G, and that T-Mobile's HSPA+ network was really more like 3.5 G, an intermediate step toward 4G.

Well, it turns out we weren't entirely right. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the leading intergovernmental telecom standards organization, declared that true 4G mobile networks must deliver download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (mbps) for cell phones, and 1 gigabit per second for computers.

By that standard, no one is offering true 4G in the U.S. Sprint and T-Mobile say their high-speed networks max out at about 5 mbps, and in our informal tests, we've clocked some average speeds that are far lower. Verizon, which just rolled out LTE service, has no phones yet but has capped speeds at between 5 to 10 mbps. (By the way, the other big carrier, AT&T, has an HSPA+ network, but has been quiet about its deployment; the carrier says it will offer 4G service via LTE technology soon. And Metro PCS, the smaller no-contract carrier, now has an LTE network in a number of cities.)

So where does all this leave consumers? Here's what you need to know about higher-speed networks and phones:

The networks are faster, but that may matter only on certain tasks. If you own a 4G smart phone, you may barely notice the speed advantage except during such data-heavy functions as surfing the Web or using video chat. Carriers have been stressing video quality as the main beneficiary of high-speed networks. Streamed videos do look smoother than with a 3G connection, in my experience, but so do those streamed over a Wi-Fi connection—which is standard on most smart phones.

4G phones are scarce, but more are coming. Only a handful of smart phones currently have the ability to exploit these faster networks, including the HTC Evo 4G and Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint, and the T-Mobile G2 and myTouch 4G (both made by HTC). None have been announced from Verizon. But we expect to see many more such models in 2011, including some from Verizon.

Networks are still limited in scope. T-Mobile says its HSPA+ network will reach 200 million people in 100 markets by year's end. Verizon and Sprint pledge to cover only about half as many people in that time frame. But in our informal tests, the optimal data connections are hard to find in so-called "covered" areas.

Bottom line. All four carriers are moving to speed up their data networks, and that's a good thing. But the benefits for most cell users won't be as dramatic as they were when, say, we moved from the voice-call-only world of 1G to the digital-communication (text, e-mail, Web browsing, social networking) worlds of 2G and 3G.

The current crop of 4G phones managed high scores in our Ratings (available to subscribers), but many of the 3G models delivered equally impressive results. More important, as our recent survey on cellular service points out, consumers care more about the quality of service than what it's called.

—Mike Gikas

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