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.┬áDespite 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.

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