Clearing Up Confusion about 4G Cellular Networks
By Joseph D. Lienjdlien. Tuesday, July 19, 2011 11:42:05 PM
A new survey has come out that indicates some interesting things about peoples' understanding of the term "4G". Nobody knows what it is, but yet they believe they already have it.
One of the questions that the survey asked was "Are you planning on buying a 4G cell phone this year". The fact is that there are very few cell phones that could be considered "4G capable" on the market, and virtually all of them are new, high-end Android phones. They include:
- HTC EVO 4G
- Samsung Epic 4G
- LG Revolution
- Motorola Droid Bionic
- HTC Thunderbolt
- Samsung Inspiration
- Motorola Atrix
There are a few more "4G" devices out there, but the full list is relatively short when you consider all the models of phones out there.
Despite the actual absence of 4G phones in consumers' hands right now, here were the percentage of responses that indicated people already owned a 4G phone:
The real standout statistic is that of the iPhone owners. It seems that many (most even) iPhone 4 owners believe that "iPhone 4" means "iPhone 4G". It does, in fact, not. It's even assumed that Apple's next iPhone won't even include anything beyond the same 3G capabilities that were introduced on their iPhone 3G. (But they could always surprise everyone at the last minute).
Perhaps even more puzzling is that 24% of BlackBerry owners also have similar delusions about their handsets. RIM also does not make a "4G" BlackBerry. I have no idea why BlackBerry users would think this. I'd like to imagine that it's because they are all running Opera Mini, and browsing is so fast that they think that they must be on a 4G network.
I think that this whole thing is really just indicative of a lot of consumer confusion about what 4G actually is. There are carriers announcing that they are or will soon have 4G networks, and phone manufacturers are branding many devices as 4G. The really sad thing is that in reality, probably few, if any of these services or products actually are truly 4G.
So what is 4G, really?
In telecommunications, there are several types of technologies that networks run on. In the '80s, there were analog networks. These were first generation or 1G networks. Then, in 1992, 2G digital networks began to replace the analog networks, because they could operate much more efficiently and offer (very slow) data services. Then, in 2001, UMTS began to be offered -- 3G.
It actually wasn't until 2009 that 4G was actually formally specified (by the ITU-R. So this is a pretty recent development. It's pretty much guaranteed that anything existing before this standard was finalized isn't truly 4G. According to the spec, true 4G should be capable of 1 gigabit per second. Yes, that's the same speed as you should be getting over a brand new wired network with high-end computers. Except that this is wireless. And it's always with you.
Obviously that's not happening. Yet. It's hard imagine a world where we can download an entire high-definition movie onto our phones in a few minutes wirelessly, but actual 4G will enable this kind of speed.
The technology that actually enables this is still in development, but until then we have evolutionary technologies that can augment existing 3G networks to boost their speed up to respectable levels.
These "pre 4G" technologies include:
Technically, these kinds of networks should be considered 3.9G, and not actually 4G, but they are almost always branded as 4G because it has a nice ring to it... and I suppose it helps to sell cell phones and contracts.
The first LTE services available on Earth were opened in late 2009 in Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway. Since then, service has started to be deployed in some US cities, South Korea, and not many more places than that - but this should change quickly.
True 4G systems to come in the next few years are:
- LTE Advanced
These kinds of 4G systems could be truly game changing. What we are calling 4G today may seem fast for those of us who still remember waiting minutes for a webpage to load over EDGE... but the kind of stuff that LTE Advanced is capable of will put our broadband home Internet service to shame.
Of course... at the end of the day, maybe it doesn't really matter if your connection is fast enough to download the contents of the Library of Congress onto your phone in a minute. Not if that means that you end up spending your data plan in a matter of seconds.
As exciting as it is to see these super-fast networks come into existence, the real revolution we need is not a network upgrade, but it's a change in how customers are charged by carriers. And with the greater bandwidth, I am cautiously optimistic that these changes will come.