4G in a Nutshell

One of the biggest points of discomfort when it comes to wireless products is that once you’ve got the hardware you want and download all of the apps that you use daily, it’s obsolete. There’s always a newer model of your phone, newer features, newer apps, etc.. It never ends really does it?

The newest part of the wireless technology swirl that’s already doing it’s best to confuse people, is the new so-called “4G” service. Everybody wants faster data transfer, faster messaging, faster everything really, because a technological driven society *demands* speed. Unfortunately for us, the consumers, this drive has led some companies to brand their latest and greatest technologies as something flashy, instead of coming up with a better name for it.

For starters, 4G as classified by the ITU-R (that’s International Telecommunication Union – Radiocommunication Sector for those not excited by acronyms), is a wireless standard that runs at ultra-broadband speeds and provides a secure all-IP based solution. It sounds like too much tech mumbo jumbo, right? Let’s make it a little easier.

4G is the fourth generation of cellular wireless standards. To be real 4G, data transfer has to be done at 1 gigabit per second. That’s almost 10 times faster than Sprint’s current “4G” product. The evolution of these standards started at the old boxy cell phone in a bag from the 80’s and right now stops somewhere around the HTC Evo that Sprint hasn’t been able to keep in stock. The truth be told, we’re not really in a 4G world yet. I know you’re asking “But I’ve seen that in the commercial. What do you mean this isn’t 4G?” We’re actually in a transitional stage when it comes to wireless signal and speed. Sprint’s advertised “4G” is using a technology called Mobile WiMAX to boost speeds. T-Mobile’s recent announcement of “4G” is really a transition to something called HSPA+ (evolved high speed packet access). T-Mobile’s actually running what’s called 3.8G, while Sprint’s technology is considered to be an “other” 3G transition format.

The basic concept of WiMAX is it’s really just a big wireless network that covers an area. Back during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Intel donated WiMAX hardware to help out the FCC and FEMA so they could maintain their communications over a really big area that had no working phones. So the speed burst is easy to understand, because your WiMAX phone is just hooking up to a giant wireless network, and then pushing data around like your laptop does. It’s clocked around 128 megabits per second, but that’s only when you’re in an area that has WiMAX. Which honestly, is a very small part of the American wireless market (Hampton Roads has no “4G” coverage from Sprint because there is no WiMAX deployment in the area).

HSPA+ gets a little bit more complicated, but it can flex up to 56 megabits per second on download, with 22 megabits per second on uploads. The upshot to HSPA+ over WiMAX, is that it runs over the wireless cell network. There’s not an additional hardware requirement to deploy a wide area wireless network, but it also brings the ability to give each device attached to the cell network its own IP address. IP addressing is important as we move into a more digital world and our different ways of accessing networks get more sophisticated. It also means better call quality by using voice over IP, better video quality on your phone, and improvements in more aspects of your cell phone experience.

I know, you’re thinking they both sound great. Faster speeds, better quality of service, what’s wrong with this picture?  The problem is that these speeds are all theoretical. They only exist in labs under optimal conditions. It’s like that sticker on your car that said it got 26 MPG/City, and you still can’t figure out why you’re getting gas twice a week and it’s only 10 miles to work round trip. Another major issue is going to be your service when you’re not in an area that has HSPA+ or WiMAX. More than likely, you’ll be thrown back into a slower speed mode, which makes you wonder why you shelled out the big bucks in the first place for “4G”.

The dawn of real 4G will come with the deployment of either LTE (Long Term Evolution) Advanced or WiMAX 2, both of which have been deemed worthy by meeting the requirements set forth by the ITU-R. Depending on how the release of the LTE standard (3.9G) goes, we could realistically see true 1 gigabit per second transfer rates and more by 2012. For now though, it’s jump on the 3.8G/other bandwagon, or wait until everything settles down.

Rob Waters is an Information Systems and Communications coordinator for an automotive parts manufacturer in Hampton Roads. While he hasn’t maintained a website since the bust of the dot com bubble, you can follow him on Twitter as @evilrobert

 

(contributed to the DP)

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