The expert guide to choosing a 4G wireless service

As the title says, this is the expert guide to choosing 4G wireless service.  This article will not make you an expert in 4th Generation wireless communications.  If you want to become an expert, go to college, take some courses and then go to work for a wireless company.

This article will provide you with the education and facts to allow you to make an intelligent choice of a 4G service.

So what is 3G?

In order to understand what 4G is, you need to have a little understanding of how the previous generation 3G is defined.  The ITU, the International Telecommunications Union adopted a set of specifications that titled IMT-2000 (International Mobile Telecommunications-2000) that defined the third-generation (3G) of peak data rates of 200 Kbps.

Yes, that seems slow, but that is where the world started with in 2000.  In the next nine years or so, revisions of 3G (3.5G and 3.75G) upgraded the service to include speeds of several Mbps.

Now here are some surprising facts:

Mobile WiMAX fits the definition of 3G.

HSPA+ is 3G technology.

The release of 3GPP LTE (Long Term Eveloution) is 3G.

The first release of LTE is 3.9G, not 4G.

Are you confused?  Don’t feel bad as most people are totally confused on what 4G really is and you can blame the Sales and Marketing people at AT&T (and some other wireless providers).

For the moment, 4G (4th generation) broadband is a mythical creature.  In other words, if 3G were a workhorse, 4G would be a unicorn.

You heard me right; 4G does not yet exist in a definitive form in the United States.  I will attempt to show you some of the smoke and mirrors the companies are using to cloud the issue.

What really defines 4G?

The ITU adopted a standard in 2009 called IMT-Advanced (International Mobile Telecommunications Advanced).  Two of the requirements were divided between high mobility communications and low mobility communications.

High mobility communications are defined as cars, trains and anything that travels at a high speed of up to 200 mph.  The 4G peak is 100 Mbps for high mobility communications.

Low mobility communications are people walking and stationary positions.  The 4G peak for low mobility communications is 1 Gbps.

Look around and see if you can find a smartphone by anyone that gives you a 1Gbps download speed.  I cannot find any.  In fact, I cannot find a wireless provider that comes close to that speed.

You can see why there was an uproar all over the world when the 4G standard was released.  No one had any wireless offerings that could remotely come close to being called 4G.

4G Technology review

Let us run down the various technologies sort them out.

Two technologies meet the ITU IMT-Advanced specifications sometimes referred to as 4G, however they are still being defined and no one commercially offers them.

LTE Advanced is 4G with a 1 Gbps peak download speed and a 500 Mbps peak upload speed.

WirelessMAN-Advanced, or IEEE 802.16m, meets the peak speeds of 1 Gbps peak download for  low mobility and 100 Mbps download speeds for high mobility.

Three other technologies are being marketed as 4G, but they are really 3.9G.  Please note that these speeds are theoretical speeds and do not reflect the real-world speeds you can expect in real life.

LTE supplies a peak download speed of 300 Mbps and an upload peak of 75 Mbps.  This meets the high mobility rate for 4G, but cannot offer the 1 Gbps download speed for low mobility devices, like your smartphone.

WiMax offers a peak download speed of 128 Mbps and a peak upload of 56 Mbps.  Like LTE, it meets the high mobility specification but does not come close to the 4G spec for low mobility devices.

HSPA+ has a peak download rate of 56 Mbps and offers a peak upload speed of 22 Mbps.

So, if you are looking at the theory of what is the fastest, LTE comes in first followed by WiMax with HSPA+ in last place.

There are a couple of other slower standards, but they are not widely used or have been discontinued.  We will not cover them here.

IMT-Advanced specification vs. 4G

Now before you say “They couldn’t sell 4G if it wasn’t really 4G” let me explain how the wireless companies can get away with that.  The official designation for 4th generation mobile wireless is IMT-Advanced.  It was designated so by the ITU.

Some in the industry, and they were probably marketing and sales people, noticed that the ITU didn’t use the 4G reference when referring to 4th generation wireless.  When HSPA advanced to become HSPA+ there was a large increase in speed.  HSPA+ is still 3G, very fast 3G, but still 3G.  T-Mobile and AT&T jumped at the chance to declare the 4G designation.

Months later, On December 6, 2010 in Geneva, the ITU realized that the 4G designation had been hijacked.  The ITU issued a statement in the middle of their announcement at the start of the World Radiocommunication Seminar 2010 (WRS-10).

The statement says:

  • Following a detailed evaluation against stringent technical and operational criteria, ITU has determined that “LTE-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” should be accorded the official designation of IMT-Advanced. As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G”…

No mention of HSPA+ was made and we can see the ITU’s mind was made up with what was really 4th generation wireless: LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced.

They continued:

  • although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.

The ITU admitted that people were referring to LTE and WiMax as 4G.  Yes they were close to 4G as “evolved 3G technologies”.  Like they say: “close counts only in horseshoes”; and now in 4G.  On top of that the ITU admits that the 4G designation is “undefined.”

Notice that the ITU does not specifically mention HSPA+ (the technology itself is definitely 3G) but lets it slide in as “other evolved 3G technologies” that may be referred to by 4G.  Additionally, the ITU only associates LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced with the IMT-Advanced specification.

The ITU goes on to say that the IMT-Advanced specifications are due to be finalized in 2012.  I just have a question: What will they call the technology when 1 Gbps download speeds come to low mobility telecommunications?  Will it be 5G, 6G, 4G-Advanced or Super 4G?

What can You expect in real life?

If you are salivating on the above mentioned speeds, just go back to sleep and dream you are getting such speeds.  In the real world, the actual speeds you will find are dramatically lower.

LTE speeds are between 5 Mbps and 12 Mbps compared to the 300 Mbps theoretical speed which is just 4% of the max speed.

WiMax speeds in real life are between 3 Mbps and 6 Mbps.  That is nearly 5% of the max speed.

HSPA+ will give you between 1 Mbps and 7 Mbps.  That comes to 12.5% of the theoretical speed.

So if math is your forte, you might choose HSPA+ because they are 12.5% of the maximum speed.

The rest of us will see that the LTE has the highest speed with an average of 8.5 Mbps.  WiMax averages 4.5 Mbps and HSPA+ averages 4 Mbps.

Who uses what?

Let’s look into who uses which technology.

AT&T uses HSPA+ and states in their documentation that speeds of up to 6 Mbps are possible, but may be lower.  “Actual speeds experienced will vary and depend on several factors, including location, device, environment, and capacity.”

You can see a current 4G coverage map that shows the current coverage in dark blue and future coverage in light blue.  Click here and then select the Coverage map.

Sprint uses WiMAX.  They advertise between 3 Mbps and 6 Mbps.  They also state that “Actual speeds may vary based upon plan and other factors.”

You can see a current 4G coverage map that shows the current coverage represented by reddish dots surrounded by a border of gray.  Do not be fooled by the orange on the map as that is “other” coverage, not 4G availability.  Click here and then select the 4G tab.  An alternative 4G coverage map showing yellow coverage areas is available here.

T-Mobile uses HSPA+ which is the same technology that AT&T uses.  This is probably one of the reasons that AT&T is trying to buy them.  They plug their theoretical top speed of 21 Mbps, but do not commit to any speed or offer a speed the average user should expect.  You can probably expect a 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps download speed.

You can get a 4G coverage map for your area by clicking here and selecting the Data Coverage Map. You can enter your zip code to check local availability.

For another 4G coverage map, click here and you will see a map of covered cities.  I do not think this map is up to date as when you click on the various cities, the news for those cities appears to be all for August 20, 2010.

Verizon uses LTE technology.  They advertise between 5 Mbps and 12 Mbps on their 4G network.

You can find a 4G coverage map here.


Coverage is actually more important when selecting a wireless carrier than speed.  If you cannot get any reception or get poor reception, speed will not be a concern.

Check all wireless providers in your area and compare the coverage maps.  Go to each and every one of them and enter your home address to see the coverage.

Do the same with your work address and your favorite places where you spend time.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but just use copy and paste with your address and do it anyway.

Many, many years ago when cell phones were in their infancy, I stopped using my Motorola brick in exchange for a smaller cell phone with a different carrier.  The phone would only work in one particular area of my back yard and when I was at work, I had to walk two blocks south to get a signal.

I cannot stress enough that you check the coverage.  After you check the coverage, find a friend that uses the carrier you like and see if they can shed some light on dead spots in your area.

After you evaluate the coverage then select a company that has the best speed.

My personal recommendation

My personal recommendations and rankings if coverage for all companies were the same in my area are as follows:

  1. Verizon
  2. Sprint
  3. AT&T
  4. T-mobile

Now, if I were set upon getting an iPhone and no other phone would do, and the coverage was the same between Verizon and AT&T, I would put AT&T in first place.  With AT&T you can talk and browse the web at the same time on the iPhone.

Of course, that is when 4G comes in the iPhone 5 or the iPhone 6 or…