The idea of mobile data has always been easy enough to grasp because data speeds were slow enough that differentiating between networks and options was pretty straightforward. Data speeds would mainly depend on the amount of coverage in a given area as well as available bandwidth on the network. 3G speeds jumped around in the 500kbps to the 2mbps range, so you could go out and buy a 3G USB modem or mobile hotspot that would meet your expectations. The only real points of comparison with 3G networks had to do with coverage and speed, so we managed—even when the technology was new—to understand it.

With Verizon’s launch of their 4G LTE network, three out of the four major US carriers—Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—boast 4G data networks. Each company’s definition of “4G” is quite a bit different, however, and not a single one actually meets the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) official definition. The ITU defines 4G as a connection capable of 100Mbps with high mobility (wherever you go) and up to 1Gbps with low mobility (Wi-Fi range). The cellular data network’s 4G speeds don’t even come close, and the only definition each network seems to be able to agree upon is that 4G is just what comes after 3G. While the title of “4G” isn’t necessarily accurate and, in many ways, meaningless, we nonetheless have to live by the terminology these cellular data providers are using.

A Quick Look at “4G” Technologies

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at the different technologies that are currently being labeled as “4G” in the United States. We’ll be throwing around these terms as we take a deep dive, so here’s a quick refresher if you’re not fully caught up on your next-generation wireless technologies:

  • Mobile WiMax- WiMax is the “4G” technology that Sprint uses, and it offers peak data rates of 128mbps downstream and 56mbpss upstream.
  • Long Term Evolution (LTE) – LTE is Verizon’s choice for “4G” mobile broadband, providing theoretical peak data rates of 100mbps downstream and 50mbps upstream. While LTE (or, specifically, 3GPP LTE) isn’t technically 4G, LTE Advanced is expected to actually meet 4G requirements with a peak download speed of 1gbps (yes, one gigabit). The upgrade path from 3GPP LTE to LTE Advanced is supposed to be easier and more cost-effective than most upgrades, so this could bode well for Verizon in the near future.
  • HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) – T-Mobile’s opted to use HSPA+ for its 4G network, even though HSPA is what Sprint and Verizon use for its 3G data. While HSPA+ definitely offers faster speeds, those peak speeds are about half of what LTE and WiMax offer—56mbps downstream and 22mbps upstream.