06
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4g-speed1
Last Updated: March 30th, 2011

4G is here - and it seems like all four of America's biggest carriers are more than happy to advertise the fact that they've got it. Sprint was first on the scene - offering their WiMax 4G, and T-Mobile shortly thereafter began its upgrade to HSPA+ technology. Verizon was next, providing mobile broadband LTE via USB dongle for laptops, though its much-awaited debut 4G handset, the Thunderbolt, has yet to hit shelves after numerous delays. Finally, lagging behind in truly characteristic fashion, AT&T has begun to roll out its own HSPA+ network, with plans to offer LTE in the second half of the year. That's a lot of trade terms and acronyms, so we're going to give you a breakdown of just what it is "4G" means to the big four in the US, in order of how serious their 4G efforts are:

#4: Sprint

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Sprint's 4G, condensed: Be afraid, be very afraid. Buying a 4G phone on Sprint right now is a gamble, WiMax is in peril - and usable Sprint LTE could be a long way off. Do not want. But, the price is right.

Sprint's 4G is a tale both of woe for America's comeback carrier and of joy for customers. Sprint offers, without a doubt, the most competitive smartphone plan pricing of any major carrier in America: all you can eat everything for just $69.99* (plus applicable 4G and smartphone fees). Well, even with the asterisk-attached 4G smartphone tax, Sprint still is an attractive option for the penny-pinching consumer - assuming Sprint 3G (let alone 4G) coverage is available in your locale.

A sizable portion of Sprint's 3G coverage outside of major metro areas still relies on roaming agreements with other service providers, something that has to be costing the company some serious bucks. Still, Sprint customer satisfaction generally remains high, probably because of the unabashed success of the world's first "4G" smartphone: the HTC EVO 4G. At least five of Android Police's staff are (mostly) happy EVO 4G users, and I see the EVO 4G in the wild more often than any other Android device in Los Angeles. Sprint 4G speeds in Los Angeles County are no joke, either - users report anywhere from 3-10Mbps down and about 1-1.5Mbps up, and that's not shabby.

But all is not well in paradise, in fact, there's a lot of buzz that Sprint will be switching to LTE later this year. CDMA 3G and LTE 4G, that sounds like a familiar combination. Could it be that Sprint's lone-dog status as a WiMax provider is coming back to bite it in the rear? It sure seems like it, and I doubt manufacturers are very excited about building versions of their handsets and software that work on exactly one network in the world.

Will Sprint let WiMax flounder after 2011? Given the company's oft-questioned financial stability, investing in two 4G networks probably isn't something NASCAR's biggest sponsor can in good faith burden its balance sheets with. I'm sure Sprint will end up taking some heat from customers who preemptively purchased 4G handsets in the hopes that WiMax coverage would soon grace their more suburban homesteads.

The future of Sprint's 4G is a big question-mark, and that's not good for consumers who have to choose between multiple carriers, all of them offering more concrete 4G roadmaps.

#3 T-Mobile

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T-Mobile's 4G in a nutshell: If you live in an area where T-Mobile has strong 4G coverage, a 4G phone is probably worthwhile. It's also pretty cheap. But if you're like most of America, your four-gees will feel a lot more like three (or less). Also, who knows what T-Mobile's LTE plans are.

T-Mobile is home to some of the earliest Android adopters in the US, since the days of the first Android phone: the G1. And for that reason, many T-Mobile users are loyal fanatics of the Bellevue-based arm of Deutsche Telekom (I also tend to think most of those fanatics are, in fact, in Seattle / Bellevue / Portland). T-Mobile offers smartphone plan pricing second only to Sprint in economy, and with substantially better 3G/4G coverage.

T-Mobile uses HSPA+ as its 4G tech of choice, which, according to the people that write the rules on 4G, isn't 4G (well, neither is LTE, apparently). Semantics aside, T-Mobile's been wasting no time in asserting itself as the carrier with the "largest 4G network" in the US. Wow, exciting - bigger than Verizon's current LTE coverage? Yes. But, there's a big, ugly caveat to that statement: the speed of that "4G" varies massively depending on region. If you live in one of T-Mobile's "big three" coverage zones (New York City, Los Angeles County, Greater Seattle Metro), great! Your 4G will probably be, in ideal conditions, pretty speedy. The Samsung Galaxy S 4G managed to pull 10Mbps out of its hat in an MSNBC test, which presumably took place in New York.

Things get bad, though. The Consumerist tested T-Mobile's 4G in an unknown location that offered 4G coverage, and couldn't break the 1Mbps mark. That's not exactly scientific, but it shows how malleable T-Mobile's definition of "4G" is. How does this happen? T-Mobile's 4G doesn't actually require the construction of any additional cell towers or major upgrades to network hardware. In fact, all HSPA+ requires carriers to do is attach a couple more antennas to their existing HSPA 3G towers, and do a little bit of software tinkering. I'm hugely oversimplifying the process here, but basically, it's not nearly as expensive an investment as LTE, and the network bandwidth isn't actually increased, only the end-user speed caps.

HSPA+ has another drawback - peak speeds drop off dramatically the further you get from the access point, much more dramatically than standard HSPA 3G, CDMA, or LTE. This has to do with the natural limitations of the technology, though later (years from now) iterations may mitigate this problem to some extent by using a wider frequency range.

T-Mobile hasn't announced any plans to implement LTE, but I wouldn't be surprised if their customers start to find HSPA+ a little limited a year or so from now.

#2 AT&T

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AT&T and the 4G: Buying an HSPA+ "4G" phone on AT&T may never feel quite like 4G. That said, AT&T's 3G is pretty snappy, so their HSPA+ should be pretty snappy, too (eg, better than T-Mo's). Waiting for LTE won't be as bad as Sprint, but wait you will, and then you'll wait some more - for coverage. And you'll have new and exciting speed/data consumption tiers to pay for once you get that coverage. Woohoo!

America's second most popular carrier (depending on who you believe) has finally gotten on-board with the 4G craze. Last to the fight, AT&T's 4G plans sound downright aggressive - and that may be cause for concern.

AT&T already has two 4G phones you can walk into any brick-and-mortar AT&T store and pick up right now. You might even be able to keep your old unlimited data plan. Exciting stuff. As you're all probably well-aware, the two 4G phones AT&T currently offers are the HTC Inspire and the Motorola ATRIX. As you may also know, both are HSPA+ devices. I reviewed the Inspire 4G and was generally happy with it as a phone. What I wasn't happy with was the 4G aspect.

Unfortunately, AT&T does not seem to have gone about actually turning on its HSPA+ network, presumably because the backhaul isn't complete. That's fine, though I would have liked a little notice from AT&T in regard to that, or at least some availability estimates.  AT&T apparently plans to provide HSPA+ to the entirety of its current 3G network, ambitious indeed - as this will also potentially increase speeds for 3G HSPA devices incrementally. But until I see it, I'm hesitant about how much of a real-world-effect this network upgrade will have given AT&T's extremely iPhone-burdened network.

As I've said numerous times, AT&T's 3G isn't slow. Where there is 3G coverage, AT&T generally eats Verizon (and everyone else) for breakfast in the download speed arena. The complaints start arising when discussing AT&T's call quality and coverage. Still, AT&T out-covers T-Mo and Sprint by a significant margin, and its 3G speeds in metropolitan areas are unmatched (I get upwards of 3.5-4Mbps down in downtown LA). And, if you have an unlocked HSUPA device or an iPhone, your upload speeds on AT&T will easily reach 1-1.5Mbps. So how much better can AT&T's network really get with the addition of HSPA+?

But AT&T's no one-trick pony, they plan to start offering LTE coverage in the second half of this year. Ambitious, indeed. So why even bother with HSPA+? I think I have an answer, and it starts with "i" and ends with "Phone." Far be it from me to speculate about the plans of the world's most secretive hardware developer, but something tells me Apple isn't ready to hop on the LTE bandwagon just quite yet. As the Thunderbolt's pricing has demonstrated, LTE radios may not exactly be cheap at this point, and LTE coverage will take a couple of years to get close to matching current 3G.

I'm willing to bet when we see Steve Jobs (or whoever) get on stage to unveil the latest iPhone this year, it'll be packing HSPA+, not LTE (I highly doubt a Verizon LTE model, either) - because consumers want 4G that "just works, everywhere." Oh, and when AT&T's HSPA+ backhaul is complete, they'll be able to call themselves the nation's largest 4G network, so T-Mobile better get all that it can out of that size-queen marketing tiara before AT&T steals it. Just sayin'.

So, we've established motive for AT&T's HSPA+ crusade, what about LTE? Honestly, I wouldn't expect too much action in that arena until next year. AT&T will have to play catch-up with Verizon, and the iPhone will likely make the switch to LTE for both carriers, so that Apple can buy all those LTE radios in mega-bulk. At that point, AT&T will have to compete to stay relevant. I wouldn't say AT&T's LTE will get dwarfed by Verizon's, but I don't think it'll be beating it any time soon.

Regardless, AT&T's 4G plans are nothing to get excited over - for now. But, compared to T-Mobile and Sprint, the 4G future's looking a lot brighter on that AT&T side of the fence. Not to mention AT&T's massive lineup of Android devices in the coming year.

#1 Verizon

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Verizon 4G, is it for me? Almost definitely yes. If you need 4G connectivity now, Verizon is undoubtedly going to be your best bet to get it. As soon as they release a 4G phone, which will be at some point soon (?). Also, expect to pay. A lot. You know, Verizon reminds me of a certain other red fellow known for making long-term, binding commitments that play off people's desires to have what they want. Hm.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone. Already in possession of the US's largest 3G network (though not always the fastest), Verizon has advertised its 4G LTE network en-masse since late last year. Observed speeds have gone all the way up to 20Mbps and beyond in ideal conditions, and Verizon advertises a range of 5-12Mbps. The speeds don't sound that unbelievable, but that's not really what makes Verizon's 4G effort the most serious to date - it's the promise of coverage. By 2013, Verizon plans to have the entirety of its current 3G network covered by 4G. Given that Verizon's 3G coverage in terms of sheer square mileage vastly exceeds any other carrier, this is a big promise.

But it's one they're likely to keep - because while technologies like HSPA+ and WiMax can sometimes match Verizon's practical speeds in major metropolitan areas, it's Verizon's breadth and contiguity of data coverage that has made it the country's most popular provider. Verizon was the first to reach out to the suburbs with real 3G coverage, and they're probably going to be the first to do it with 4G, too. Even with the damaging delays and rumors that plague the Thunderbolt every day its launch goes unannounced, it is undoubtedly the most anticipated Android handset to date. And 4G is the flagship feature. The EVO 4G didn't generate anything close to this kind of hype, and that was the "world's first" 4G smartphone.

Also, what the hell is LTE? LTE is the "next step" up from HSPA - and really, for purposes of terminology it's still 3G. LTE Advanced will be the first "true" 4G mobile data standard, but that's a long way off. LTE does a lot of things better than its predecessor - hugely increased bandwidth (up to 326.4Mbits on a 4-antenna setup), much-reduced latency, larger maximum coverage radius (better reach in rural areas),  better data connection at high speeds (eg in your car, on a train), and higher call quality. It requires lots of shiny, new network equipment and antennas - so a lot of capital is needed to make a nationwide rollout happen.

Anyway, you can bet Verizon doesn't have any plans of losing the 4G arms-race, and given all the confusion as to what really constitutes "4G" and therefore who has the most 4G coverage, they're really going to have to win it by doing it better than everyone else instead of just saying it.  Supposedly Verizon's 4G already covers 100 million people in the US, but without a coverage map, the sense I get from that is "most major cities."

Still, one can't help but feel that Verizon's 4G rollout is moving at a pace that makes its competitors' efforts seem inadequate. The 4G wars will be won on the streets of suburbia, where over half of all Americans reside - and this is why Verizon remains the most (again, subject to your source) popular carrier in the US. If Verizon can push 4G to the outcrops of major population centers before the competition, its dominance in the marketplace will only grow.

As always, there's a caveat: Verizon's moving to tiered data plans for its 4G - and they're not sure if it's going to be just about data consumption, or both consumption and speed tiers. Yuck. And you can bet it's going to be a fantastic experience paying for the four-gees on your bill every month if you want all the gee-bees as fast as you can possibly consume them.

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

    I can't stand that on WiMax, I lose connection if I'm not in a stable 4G area or if I'm traveling on a train and jumping in and out of 4G reception.

    Can anyone tell me if non-WiMax 4G (i.e. HSPA+ or LTE) do a proper seamless hand-off when switching with 3G?

    • David Ruddock

      It's supposedly one of the major benefits to LTE, via the wikipedia page.

      • Leo

        It should be, but it has also been said that the reason the HTC Thunderbolt has yet to be released because the phone is having a problem switching back to 3G when leaving a 4G area.

  • Dave

    Im in the DC area and I have T-Mobile. I have freinds on every other network and I crush them with my 3g vibrant in speed tests. I always get atleast 2.5mbs or better up to 7mbs. My girlfriends att atrix 4g struggles to get to 2mbs. Plus I pay less and don't have a data cap. Tmobile gets my vote.

    • JoshL

      You're forgetting the fact that when you travel 5 miles away from the DC area, you'll be on Edge. It's why I made the switch from random, quick bursts of speed to a steady, reliable coverage. Verizon.

      • Dave

        Im twenty miles from dc in gaithersburg md and I am never on edge.

  • mike

    I live in New York and i use T-Mobile....i always get amazing speeds!!! all my friends use their EVO 4G or Inspire 4G and i simply destroy them in speed test with my G2..always send pictures fast and download anyhting much quicker....T-mobile for me =)

  • bryan

    How are going to pick verizon as the best 4G network when they don't even have 1 4g phone out. I smell a verizon fanboy.

  • TellMe

    Tmo's got my vote. They got one of the best customer support I've come across. They'll do almost anything to keep you happy. Being the first one who actually made an effort to bring 3.75G to the masses that spontaneously, actually gives you an idea of how hard they must be working behind stage.

    And it's almost impossible to ignore their killer characteristic: No cap limit. Imagine, I pay 59.95 a month and I get all I need, including speeds of up to 9mbps while tethering to my laptop. What else can you ask for? No question about who I'll stick with.

  • me

    I put my vote for at&t and this is why.
    1. Layered 4g, when they get LTE up and going, if you dont have LTE you can fall back on HSPA+ and it won't take 2min lag like when you go from LTEto CDMA.
    2. Size. Like you said, when they get their backhaul they will be the largest. You can see Verizon's map for LTE on their 4G web page and the closest city is 200 miles from me. Plus like you pointed out, LTE is the next step for HSPA not CDMA so it will be easier, faster and less expensive for at&t to expand.
    3. Network, I know that sounds funny when in the same sentence as at&t, but hear me out. GSM - GPRS - edge - UMTS - HSPA - LTE. That is the evaluation of GSM with at&t and most of at&t and most of the world. CDMA evolves into... WiMax??? Why is Verizon being so aggressive, to scare the condition or because they are scared? Their 3G is maxed out and CDMA doesn't have a clear path to 4G, so they are jumping ship and go to what their competitor (at&t) has been on bored for for years. And it won't be backwards compatible with CDMA, that means at some point they are going to have to abandon the network they've been building for ten years. That is scary.
    4. Personal - where I live tmo has no towers of its own, sprint has no wimax and spotty coverage, Verizon and at&t have comparable coverage but at&t has twice the speed and I can do internet and voice at the same time. The only time I don't use this is when I'm driving, otherwise if I'm on the phone, I'm also on the internet.

    Awesome article by the way. You have a good understanding of the 4 gees and the networks.

    • Androidguy003

      Clearly this guy did not read the article. Why does he think that cdma is not compatible with lte? I have a Verizon 4G air card for my laptop and it moves from 4g to 3g just fine. And AT&T just announced not to long ago that they are switching to LTE. They haven't been working on it for years and come 2 years from now they still won't have coast to coast coverage just like they don't have coast to coast coverage of their 3g service today. I think I'll stick with the company that made the right choice a few years ago to go with LTE, Verizon. Yeah Verizon isn't the first carrier to jump into the 4g pool but as always when Verizon decides to do something they do it right and don't treat their customers like lab rat experiments. Go big red!

      • me

        Really? Really? Really? I only say this three times because you posted the same thing (almost... learly) three times. First of all I did read the article, understood it and quoted from it. And I’ll quote from it once again, I’ll quote from you as well. “Why does he think that cdma is not compatible with lte?” I did not say that it was not compatible, I said that it was not backwards compatible, but why we are on that here is a quote from the article. “Also, what the hell is LTE? LTE is the "next step" up from HSPA.” I just assumed that those that would read this article where well versed enough in wireless networks that they would know the difference between GSM and CDMA. I assume that you know that GSM and CDMA are not compatible? According to 3GPP.org “The term "3GPP specification" covers all GSM (including GPRS and EDGE), W-CDMA and LTE (including LTE-Advanced) specifications.” http://www.3gpp.org/-specifications-
        (Please note that CDMA and W-CDMA are not the same). These are all sister technologies that have been in the works since 1998. AT&T formally announced LTE in 2009 at the same time as Big Red, that can be found on wikipedia under LTE, as well as many other articles. AT&T announced LTE at the same time as Big Red but they invested in GSM way back when they were Cingular, knowing it was the world standard and that these advancements where on their way. Also AT&T has announced nationwide LTE coverage by 2013 and I guess my math is bad because this is 2011 and “come 2 years from now they still won’t have coast to coast coverage” so I guess I don’t know what 2013 subtracted by 2011 is if it isn’t 2. Last of all I said that where I live “Verizon and at&t have comparable coverage” so no I haven’t had issues with placing calls. Do I need to explain comparable?

        And I'm sorry but one last thing Androidguy003, did you really refference iphone as a strength to verizon on androidpolice.com? Since you brougt it up. "AT&T iPhone users enjoyed an average download speed of 1,769kbps and upload speed of 730kbps
        Verizon fared poorly in comparison - its iPhone users experienced an average download speed of 848kbps and upload speed of 506kbps.
        Speedtest's results came from 43,000 AT&T iPhones and 14,000 Verizon iPhones. Many users tested their broadband speed multiple times, leading to a total of 106,000 test results."

        Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1358395/AT-T-beats-Verizon-iPhone-3G-broadband-speed-test.html#ixzz1FttJlSra

        I'd say that that is twice as fast but we already astablished that my math was bad.

  • Androidguy003

    Clearly this guy did not read the article. Why does he think that cdma is not compatible with lte? And cdma does not evolve into wimax, they are two totally separate technologies. And I love how the guy from AT&T says Verizon's 3g is maxed out, if it was maxed out do you think they would have launched the iphone?. Typical AT&T customers don't understand how much better it is away from their beloved company. He brags about being able to be on a call and browse the web at the same time, the only problem with that statement is you have to be able to make a call first. I'll take the company that has consistently won many awards for best network by consumer reports and J.D edwards year after year. I have a Verizon 4G air card for my laptop and it moves from 4g to 3g just fine. And AT&T just announced not to long ago that they are switching to LTE. They haven't been working on it for years and come 2 years from now they still won't have coast to coast coverage just like they don't have coast to coast coverage of their 3g service today. I think I'll stick with the company that made the right choice a few years ago to go with LTE, Verizon. Yeah Verizon isn't the first carrier to jump into the 4g pool but as always when Verizon decides to do something they do it right and don't treat their customers like lab rat experiments. Go big red!

  • commentguy2010

    I agree with the author, but want to see the 4g prices if they dont offer a unlimited then sprint then tmobile are best for me (i have had both and sprints coverage is better than tm where I live)

  • Elliotte

    Verizon has a 4G coverage map, just got here: http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/CoverageLocatorController?requesttype=NEWREQUEST&lid=//global//coverage%20locator (or go to their website then click on coverage locator in the top right of the screen.

  • http://iphone-droid-apps.com/ Mike

    I like the way you put your blog together. It was were very helpful.
    Thanks
    Mike

  • AndroidFTW!

    To the author, I'll give you credit for the article, because I'm sure it was not a piece of cake to write up, but some info needs to be added IMHO so peeps now a little more...

    Sprint had no choice to go with wimax due to Nextel merge / feds requesting to use up the spectrum (2500 mhz) before time ran out - this is where clearwire came in, along with Google, Comcast, Intel, time warner cable, etc, investing it.

    If the US would have gone wimax, which is far cheaper and worldwide bigger http://www.wimaxmaps.org/ than lte, this would be a different story also.

    Sprint has somewhat of an edge still, and could potentially come out with a lte / wimax phone (radio chip exists) and still be in the game, while it works on lte; from what I read on articles, switching wimax hardware to lte is not as hard as one would think, but lte's 700mhz near airports is a no-no, and would have to be modified.

    Tmo is / was (AFAIK) thinking about purchasing some spectrum from clear / sprint, which would bring the revenue needed. Some articles also stated clear was to offer some spectrum, if it decided to invest in the company - this to me would be ideal, since tmo has big bro in UK and could potentially bring the money needed for clear to build out lte; what tmo & sprint needs - feed off of each other.

    Wimax spectrum can be changed to 800mhz or split in 10mhz or 20mhz channels to perform better / reach a higher group of users on same network, once clear / sprint decide which way it wants to go. Between sprint & clear, their spectrum is bigger than any all other carriers put together, this is what I actually believe will end up benefiting greatly on their side, and the reason why wimax has no cap in bandwidth, while others on lte will have to charge extra on.

    On Thunderbolt vs. Evo hype, I guess it can all depend on persons eyes, but to me, Evo was greatly anticipated since rumors (supersonic, I can't remember the other code name) came out in Nov. 2009 & showed off in ctia 2010 while other carriers / geeks were envious. Which phone was compared the most in phone battles? Yup, Evo and of course iphone, for good reasons. Now does vzw have a better marketing team to show off this phone? Of course, they got more money lol, but I still don't see it more hyped up than the Evo was, since Evo's hype was at other websites expense / rumor talk / first US (not worldwide, HTC max was) 4G phone with all bells & whistles, etc.

    I'll stop going on, and I'll end it with the best 4G carrier will be the one that fits your needs in data, voice, price, coverage from where you travel from / to, etc, in 5-7 years. 4G is still a baby, and will be for years to come (same stage 2g to 3g timeframe it took to develop / mature). Until radio chip / CPU's / dual cores / amoled screens, etc, fall in price and battery technology catches up, we'll be the guinea pigs of time, and pay the price lol.

    • me

      Its good to see someone who knows their stuff about Sprint. I agree that the best choice depends on where you are, what you need and budget.

  • h3

    Great article, thank you. I've been thinking about jumping ship from Sprint for a VZW Bionic when it premiers if I'm not in love with any of Spint's upcoming debuts later this month. Sounds like I need to just go LTE now.

    • me

      Sounds good, make sure to check the maps for LTE where you live and work. Also take a good look at the thounderbolt, att's inspire has gotten better reviews than the atrix, even though the atrix has better hardware. (Price for what you get is a big factor there) It might be similar on Verizon, so check it out.

  • Just Me

    I love it when Verizon's marketing team posts articles. They are so valid! What about spectrum to support 4G? Current deployments? Partnerships? Devices? Did you do anything other than look at TV ads for this article?????