4G mobile broadband and you: Coverage, cost, and, yes, caveats

Soon, your mobile broadband network might be able to deliver faster Internet speeds than your cable or DSL to your home or office... just not quite yet.

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Who doesn't want a faster Internet connection? What with Netflix, Hulu, and other Internet video rising in popularity, everyone wants more and more bandwidth. If your phone company and cable provider can't provide it, maybe your mobile phone company can instead with 4G technology.

[ See also: Just what is 4G speed and how are U.S. carriers offering it? ]

After years of slow deployments, all the major wireless telecomms -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are all rolling out nationwide 4G data communication plans. Now, you can argue whether any of the technologies behind these rollouts are actually 4G, but whether you call it 3G+, 3.5G, or 4G, the bottom line is that in ideal conditions users can expect to see from 4Mbps (Megabits per second) to 23.5Mbps. Compared to what a lot of people are getting from their DSL or cable connections, no matter what the technology is called, you can see why some folks are considering considering dumping their landlines not just for voice phones but for their data needs as well.

Whether they'll actually be able to do that is another matter entirely though. You see, 4G in 2011 still comes with many caveats.

Which 4G technology?

No matter the brand, 4G networks are meant to be at least 10 times faster than your current 3G network. This puts their speeds into the most common landline ranges.

A few years back, it looked like Mobile WiMAX, aka IEEE 802.16e, was going to rule the mobile broadband world. Boy, were we wrong. WiMAX, with its 4Mbps to 6Mbps average speeds with bursts of up to 15Mbps, looked good, but delays in deploying it let another technology, Long-Term Evolution (LTE http://www.itworld.com/personal-tech/99622/verizon-lte-a-wireless-broadband-faq), catch up.

LTE boasts download speeds of between 5 and 12Mbps and upload speeds from 2 to 5Mbps. But, what's proven more important than raw speed is that LTE's backers have manged to win the hearts and minds of customers.

The other "4G" technology, HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) doesn't get as much attention as WiMAX or LTE, but it delivers similar speeds. HPSA+ averages from 550Kbps (Kilobits per second) to 8Mbps.

You should also keep in mind that while you're used to having a variety of network equipment, such as routers and switches, that will work with Wi-Fi, your equipment selection is much smaller with 4G. For example, while there are 4G routers, like any 4G equipment, they don't support all 4G variants out of the box. You have to make sure that you have a perfect match between your hardware and your 4G network.

Which 4G provider?

At this time, AT&T and Verizon offer LTE services. T-Mobile uses HSPA+ for its 4G services. Sprint, for now, and its on-again/off-again partner Clear, offers WiMAX.

I say, "for now," with reason since Clear is in financial hot-water and Sprint has been losing some WiMAX customers. On top of that, there have been rumors that Sprint is considering moving to LTE.

While experts like In-Stat say that "LTE is destined to become the dominant wireless airlink," (http://www.instat.com/press.asp?ID=2936&sku=IN1004852WBB) they also add that "several formidable challenges will make its widespread adoption slower than many expect." You should keep in mind that WiMAX also had the experts backing until recently.

All these technologies' promoters and engineers promise that their particular 4G will do better than the numbers I cite. In addition, everyone and their development staff promises that the next version of each technology -- which is right around the corner! -- will at least double these speeds.

Eh... I wouldn't be so sure. No matter which 4G network you're using, there are many variables that will determine how much speed you'll actually see. Let's look at a few examples.

4G problems

While all the 4G technologies can cover square miles (instead of 802.11n Wi-Fi's square meters), that doesn't mean that distance doesn't matter. If you're on the fringe of a 4G network, you're still going to see far poorer performance than if you were next door to a 4G cell tower.

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