Welcome to ZenUnwired; a blog dedicated to tracking developments in technology and strategy, and to deciphering the impact of these developments on wired and wireless ISP's, device manufacturers, OS and application developers, and most importantly - you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

4G: Are we there yet?

The word "4G" is being thrown around quite liberally these days, and it is leading to a lot of confusion. For example, you have probably seen ads by Sprint that speak about the 'Evo 4G' or the 'Epic 4G', ads or mailers from Clear that promise '4G speeds', etc. The situation has become even more confusing these days thanks to T-Mobile's 'largest 4G Network' claims, and Verizon's recent announcement that you can 'rule the air' on their LTE 4G network starting this month. If all of these carrier messages werent enough to knot your noodles, throw in the new fangled product monikers like the 'myTouch 4G' and the 'iPhone 4G'. Confused yet?

Here's the secret the carriers don't advertise: 4G is a myth. Like the unicorn, it hasn't been spotted anywhere in the wild just yet, and won't be any time in the near future. That is because the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the global wireless standards-setting organization, determined last month that 4G is defined as a network capable of download speeds of 100 Mbps. By that standard, as the chart above (courtesy of CNN) demonstrates, none of the carriers in the US currently offer 'true' 4G. Hence the word 4G has become what it has today - largely just a marketing buzzword. So how about them devices? Well, in simplistic terms, a 4G device is one that is capable of running on a 4G network. Therefore, no 'true' 4G network in existence today = no 'true' 4G devices in existence today. So the devices labeled 4G that are available today are just devices that are capable of faster speeds than devices not labeled 4G. (I should make a point here that the iPhone-4 has never made the claim that it is iPhone-4G. The 4G moniker is just something it has picked up along the way because its the 4th Generation of the iPhone)

So the bottomline is that Sprint (WiMax) and Verizon (LTE) have new, faster networks that are still technically not 4G, while T-Mobile has an old network (HSPA+) that is actually based on 3G technology. AT&T isnt even in the running at this point. From a device standpoint, all devices labeled 4G, are just faster devices that arent really 4G devices at all.

So how does all of this translate, especially when you are heading out to buy yourself a new wireless device this holiday season? Here are some guidelines. First, if you arent a heavy data user none of this 4G-talk should matter to you. On the other hand, if you are a heavy data user and if you are currently seeking to buy or upgrade a device, then you should pick a plan/carrier that offers you the best value. Assuming you have network coverage parity, you already know that the actual speed across your choices is the same (see chart above). So the conversation really shifts to 'value' and whether the carrier in question has the device you want. Lets look at your options.

Verizon's LTE plans will set you back by $50/month for 5GB of data, or $80/month plan for 10GB. Overages run $10 per GB. By the carrier's own admission, its LTE service will launch on USB data-cards only. There will be no LTE-enabled phones till at least mid-2011. Given that I really dont care much for data-cards, I think the 4G game is really between T-Mobile & Sprint. Both carriers have fantastic plans that are pretty evenly matched. Plus the 4G device choices on both carriers are pretty great - especially T-Mobile's myTouch 4G & G2 to Sprint's Evo 4G & Epic 4G. There is no easy answer to which one is the best option, and therefore your selection will boil down to personal choice. But in my opinion, your choice will boil down to only these four choices. 

The age-old Telecom mantra has been - 'if you cant convince, confuse'; and this time its not been any different. I sincerely hope this post helps clear up some of that confusion.