Does 4G really matter?

4G. It’s everywhere. It’s on the tech sites you read. It’s on the televisions you watch. It’s plastered in advertisements all over the city streets you walk. It was probably in the sandwich you ate for lunch. Cellular carriers around the world are betting the bank on 4G — be it LTE, WiMAX or the newly knighted HSPA+ — and 4G-enabled gear is already starting to flood the market despite the lack of nationwide coverage.

Sprint was first to market with 4G here in the U.S. since HSPA+ was still just 3G at the time, and the carrier now has several 4G smartphones and 4G modems available for sale. Verizon Wireless is about to launch its first 4G phone, the highly anticipated HTC ThunderBolt, and AT&T will begin the process of replacing its HSPA+ 4G network with an LTE 4G network later this year. Even smaller carriers like MetroPCS are getting in on the action. In fact, MetroPCS became the first U.S. carrier to launch an LTE phone last year when it released the Samsung Craft.

Not long ago, 4G was a myth in terms of available technology. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defined 4G as cellular service that provides peak download speeds of approximately 100Mbps in high-mobility environments (cell phones) and peak download speeds of approximately 1Gbps in low-mobility environments. LTE, WiMAX and HSPA+ don’t even come close to fitting that definition. This is no longer the case, however. Carriers are spending billions of dollars on these next-generation technologies and millions more advertising them. And so, not surprisingly, the ITU recently shifted its position and amended its definition of 4G to include current technologies. That worked out nicely.

Semantics aside, 4G services like LTE and WiMAX are where cellular technology is headed and eventually we’ll all embrace these new networks. We know 4G is a big deal to carriers because they’re spending bucket loads of money on these technologies, but all the hype right now surrounds speed. Speed? T-Mobile’s HSPA+ is often faster than these newer 4G technologies, as we recently saw in a recent nationwide speed test. So, does 4G really matter? Cut through all the marketing, advertising, speed tests and hype, and the answer is still yes — but perhaps not solely for the reason you think.

4G networks based on LTE and WiMAX will play an important role in empowering the future of the wireless industry. Yes, they have the potential to afford speeds that exceed the limitations of older cellular technologies like CDMA, EDGE, EV-DO and HSPA, but some might consider that a benefit of lesser importance than the capability these networks have to accommodate more traffic. Just ask AT&T, which has been taking hits in mind share ever since the mass of iPhone users began crippling its data network. Of course Apple’s inexperience with building cell phones continues to play a large role in AT&T’s current situation, but that’s another article entirely.

Without getting overly technical, new 4G networks based on LTE and WiMAX make use of technologies that will better accommodate the sharp rise in cell phone usage we’re currently seeing the the U.S. and other markets. The use of technologies like Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) antenna technology result in a more efficient use of spectrum, better signal coverage and — most importantly, perhaps — more capacity.

Think of your cellular connection as a highway. Older 3G technologies might have two or three lanes in each direction. When traffic is light, the highway is more than suitable to get you from A to B quickly, efficiently and painlessly. Problems arise as rush hour approaches, however, and it could now take hours to get to the same destination that would take just 20 minutes in light traffic.

Now, think of LTE and WiMAX as a highway that offers 10 lanes in each direction. It might have the same 65 MPH speed limit as the narrower highway, but traffic will keep moving along just fine when rush hour rolls around.

It’s far more difficult to convey this benefit in advertising, and users naturally consider speed to be of great importance — especially after being conditioned by wireline broadband services and the ISPs that provide them. As such, speed will continue to be at the forefront of all marketing messages carriers deliver to the public surrounding 4G. But rest assured, carriers need the added capacity afforded by LTE and WiMAX networks if they are to survive. Moreover, developers need the capacity so they can continue innovating, and subscribers need it so they can use all these great new services without experiencing 10 car pile-ups on a regular basis.

We’re now in the midst of rush hour and 3G highways are far too narrow to handle the congestion.

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