What is 4G: Explaining the Plethora of Acronyms (Speed Tests Included)

4G, you’ve figured out by now that it has something to do with internet speed on your phone, but beyond that its a mystery. And who can blame you? A product with this many acronyms and so many commercials claiming theirs is better and theirs has the most coverage etc. has to be confusing. Let’s see if we can shed some light on this.

One thing we need to clarify up front is that 4G has become a loose term. There are a few different technologies being utilized by carriers to give faster internet to consumers. The main ones are HSPA+, WiMax, and LTE. Think of these like you would your internet service at home, they may all call themselves “high speed internet” but to anyone who’s experienced a variety of these services there can be a big difference between their cable, fiber optic, and DSL providers. Same goes for 4G.

HSPA+ is one of the first technologies to be marketed as 4G here in the states. Outside of the states its commonly referred to as 3.5G or even just 3G and was only recently classified as 4G by the FCC after T-Mobile US aired commercials calling it as such. This is why you’ll see it being called “fake 4G” by many people across the web. Regardless of what you call it though there are pros and cons to it like any other technology.

On the plus side HSPA+ is pretty easy to setup for carriers. It doesn’t require any new tower equipment, just software upgrades for the most part, so it can be launched quickly on a carrier’s network without too much trouble. Also this technology has found its way into most devices across the globe and since most device manufacturers are overseas, its easy for them to offer US carriers devices with HSPA+ built in. This in turn makes the devices cheaper, more readily available, and have more coverage. Despite this, the major downfall, and culprit that will force companies using HSPA+, like TMobile and ATT, to switch to a different technology eventually, is the speed. While faster than most 3G technologies here in the States, HSPA+ isn’t capable of the type of speeds of, say LTE. Because of this fact ATT has already launched the beginnings of their LTE network in addition to their HSPA+ network, using the HSPA+ as more of a stepping stone to LTE rather than the end solution.

Next up is LTE. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and there’s a reason for that; it’s speed. With theoretical speeds of almost twice that of HSPA+, it stands a chance of serving consumers needs for a longer time than that of the other technologies. Another plus side for LTE is it is ultimately becoming the new standard for wireless data across the globe. Verizon, ATT, and Sprint have all launched their LTE networks here in the states (TMobile is working on theirs as we speak but has yet to launch it at the time of writing this). Across Europe, if a device doesn’t have LTE, it isn’t a 4G device, period. There are two major downsides to LTE. One being the fact that LTE requires completely new hardware in devices and at tower sites making it slow to roll out and making devices cost more to manufacturer. The other downside is that since it is an additional antenna in the device that needs to run, it can be a serious battery drainer.

Finally we come to WiMax, and… there isnt much to say about WiMax. Its dead. For mobile at least. Sprint uses it and had hoped it would become the new standard but when LTE started to be widely adopted, Sprint and WiMax’s hopes quickly died and Sprint soon launched their own LTE network to stay competitive.

Now that we have a little background, let’s discuss what everyone really cares about; the speed. Here we are in NYC, a place in which all of the carriers tend to try and put their best foot forward when it comes to new technology (let’s face it when you have 8 million potential customers on a 2 mile by 13 mile island its easier to justify building expensive, new towers for your 4G network). What better place to run a few speed tests on the different carrier’s 4G networks. Here’s what happened..

AT&T LTE (iPhone 5) -

AT&T LTE on iPhone 5 in Midtown, Manhattan AT&T LTE on iPhone 5 in Midtown, Manhattan

Sprint WiMax -

What are you looking for? I told you, it’s dead…

T-Mobile HSPA+ (Galaxy Nexus/Galaxy S III) -

T-Mobile HSPA+ 21 on Galaxy Nexus in Williamsburg, Brooklyn T-Mobile HSPA+ 21 on Galaxy Nexus in West Village, Manhattan T-Mobile HSPA+ 42 on Galaxy S III in Plymouth, Minnesota (Sent in after posting by Shane)

Verizon LTE (iPhone 5) -

Verizon LTE on iPhone 5 in Long Island City, Queens Verizon LTE on iPhone 5 in Harlem, Manhattan

The Results

You can tell from the results that regardless of the theoretical speeds advertised, actual speeds can vary greatly. Take a look at the Verizon LTE speeds just a few miles from one another’s test site. Despite this though, you can tell, by looking at the numbers as a whole that LTE is at the very least twice as fast as HSPA+ and we start to see why the Europeans consider it 4G and HSPA+ not.

And there you have it, some real work results so you can better understand what each of the carriers are saying/not saying in their commercials. Now go download a feature film in under a minute to watch on the subway. Don’t you just love technology?

*Disclaimer: These speeds tests are indicative of what I’ve seen on an average here in NYC. I have seen higher and lower speed test on all of the carriers but the fact still remains that, on an average, I’ve seen close to double the speed on LTE than on HSPA+. A good indication of how varied these results can be can be seen posted by Shane in the comments below, who hit 17mbps on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ using a Galaxy S III in Minnesota (again compare this to the average high I saw on Verizon’s LTE of 33mbps and it’s close to double). Anyone else have any other speed tests from any carriers across the country, please feel free to add them to the comments and tell us what device, what carrier, and where.

  • Fishman0919

    WOW… that’s a great comparison. AT&T and Verizon’s latest and greatest 4g LTE phone vs T-Mobiles’ 1st gen 4g HSPA+ phone. Way to go.

  • Fishman0919

    Well maybe I should read before I post but still… test should have been with something like the T-Mobile GS3

    • http://theunlockr.com David Cogen

      Yeah, your other response was a bit harsh :) But I see what you’re saying. Truthfully I’ve used the Galaxy S III on T-Mobile and the results aren’t that much higher. It may have lessened the gap here, but it still doesn’t change the fact of the overall point of the article. Now to your point though, the Galaxy Nexus is using HSPA+ 21 and the GS3 is using HSPA+ 42. In theory, you’d think that would double the speed but it just doesn’t. I’ve seen like a 6mbps increase on the Galaxy S III vs the Galaxy Nexus and sometimes the Nexus is higher by an even greater margin. With such a small and variable increase it still stands to point out that LTE is consistently much higher than any HSPA+ phone I’ve used. And since T-Mobile received LTE spectrum from Verizon recently, it stands to say that the execs at T-Mobile feel the same way, no?

      Also, if anyone else reading this has a Galaxy S III on T-Mobile in NYC, please add a screenshot of the speedtest to a comments here and I’ll happily add it in.

    • Shane

      I did a test with the S3 in Plymouth Mn, we’ll see if he approves the message and the image gets posted. needless to say 17.46 Mbps Down, 1.77 Mbps Up

  • http://theunlockr.com David Cogen

    @802bb6a5a22f5e91397214e5ecd1314e:disqus

    Not bad. But I was showing averages. Even using a Galaxy S III here in NYC I never saw a figure that high and, truthfully, once in a while saw upwards of 40mbps on LTE, but since I was posting averages and not peak speeds, I didn’t post the 40mbps speedtest. The point isn’t that sometimes they can get similar speeds, it’s averages etc. and in my experience here in NYC, I’ve seen much higher averages on LTE than on HSPA+. Generally in the double range (and your test vs the 40mbps I saw still holds that true).No need to get rude about it. It’s a test, with variables that differ depending on device and location. I am, however, going to put a disclaimer in the post referring to your speed test here as a demonstration of this fact. Thanks for sharing it.

    • http://theunlockr.com David Cogen

      @802bb6a5a22f5e91397214e5ecd1314e:disqus

      Actually if you don’t mind, I’d like to add your screenshot to the post to demonstrate the higher end of HSPA+ outside of NYC? Thanks again for sending it in!

      • Shane

        Unlocked GSM Devices on the T-mobile network have very mixed results. I feel the results may have been different had a branded device been used. I believe you will be seeing much better coverage in the next year due to the 4 billion dollars from the AT&T merger failing and that being invested in towers. Also the T-mobile/MetroPCS agreement will help out with signal on the east coast.

        • http://theunlockr.com David Cogen

          @802bb6a5a22f5e91397214e5ecd1314e:disqus
          The issue isn’t that it is unlocked I don’t believe, but it’s that the Nexus only has 21mbp HSPA+ where as your Galaxy S III has 42mbps. So to your, point, you are correct. I definitely should have used the Galaxy S III to show a more high end result (since I’m sure most T-Mobile phones going forward will use the 42mbps HSPA+ and not the 21mbps I had). I did add your result to the story though so people can see the difference. Thanks again for sending it in!
          As for the coverage thing you mention, I agree it will. But I also think T-Mobile will be launching LTE sooner rather than later as well due to the Verizon deal to buy spectrum :)

  • http://theunlockr.com David Cogen

    Oh wow, that is a cool little map. I found some nearby but not in Manhattan, and they are closer to your speeds (13mbps) using the Galaxy S3. Thanks for sharing that as well!

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