Dreaming of 4G

August 2010

The good news is that I have a new iPad and a brand new iPhone 4, thanks to my boss at iPhone Life magazine. The bad news: AT&T’s service in Fairfield is lousy, and accessing the Internet is like using a dialup modem of old. I hate it.

I can’t tell you how cool it is to always be connected. Just today a couple of Canucks were quibbling about the relative population sizes of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. This is the sort of quibble that one tends to have when one doesn’t the superpowers that I have: my handy dandy iPad.

So I take my iPad out of my handy dandy messenger bag that’s always slung over my back, and in an instant Wikipanion is giving us the answers.

But sometimes these superpowers fail, like when I was trying to impress the attractive manager of a restaurant when I was traveling recently. She saw my iPad, and instantly we were friends. So I let her know that I, ahem, write for iPhone Life magazine. And just to impress her more, I tried to bring up the iPhone Life website so she could see my work.

It died on the screen. We got a bit of the logo, and then zilch. We stared a blank screen for a couple minutes, and then I made an excuse and booted up my iPad pinball game.
So I not only want to be connected all the time, I want it to be fast. I’m dreaming of 4G. How fast is 4G? Potentially up to 40 Mbps — fast enough that the iPhone Life magazine website would have popped onto the screen in an instant. Sigh.

Just to give you an idea, let’s review. The fastest dialup modems were 56,000 Bps or 56K (kilobits per second). The along came DSL, which is typically 350,000 Bps (350K) to 3,000,000 Bps (3 Mbps). Cable comes in at around 5 Mbps (megabits per second).

And me? I’ve got fiberoptic: 96 Mbps. Only the best for your Internet columnist. But I want it everywhere, not just when I’m sitting in front of my computer.

The original 2G smartphones had speeds not that much different from dialup. Then along came 2.5G and 2.75G, with speeds theoretically as fast as 236K. That’s what I have on my iPhone and iPad in rural Iowa. Larger population centers have 3G, which can theoretically offer up to 14 Mbps.

And now 4G is being rolled out. Sprint is the first out of the starting blocks with their WiMax network, with speeds up to 40 Mbps. They have enough of it in place that they’re already selling a 4G phone — the Sprint EVO 4G. In practice, though, those theoretical speeds are rarely reached. Early speed tests of the EVO show that it is indeed DSL-fast, at an average of about 2.5 Mbps. That’s a lot less than 40, and Sprint is promising an update that will improve speeds. But frankly, if I could get 2.5 Mbps I’d be thrilled.

AT&T will start rolling out their 4G next year, called LTE (Long Term Evolution) with speeds as fast as 40–50 Mbps. T-Mobile is currently upgrading to a 3.5G protocol (HSPA+), with speeds up to 21 Mbps. A real-world speed test on T-Mobile’s network shows speeds ranging from 2–15 Mbps. Verizon is also planning to go with LTE, and will start rolling it out later this year.

Bottom line: it’s coming — DSL-like speeds and much higher, no matter where you are. I’m excited.

And here’s an interesting tidbit. Cell phone carriers in the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, come in two basic flavors: GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (Verizon and Sprint) — which are essentially two different languages. A phone usually works only with one or the other. Roaming agreements let you use the networks of other carriers that speak the same language, so that, for example, if you have an AT&T phone but are in an area with no AT&T service, you can use T-Mobile’s network.

But because there are two different languages, if your AT&T phone can’t connect someplace, and Verizon has solid coverage in that place, you can’t roam onto their network.

However, with Verizon moving to LTE, their phones will now speak the same language as AT&T and T-Mobile. It’s likely that these companies will have roaming agreements, such that not only will your phone soon have much faster speeds, but also much wider coverage.

I’m dreaming of 4G. Never again will a web page die on the screen when I’m trying to impress an attractive woman.

This month’s hot tips:

Google Voice is now open to all. TinyChat offers free online video chat rooms.

© 2010 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen