Photo: Business Insider
If you use a smartphone in the U.S. today, you’re most likely using it on a 3G wireless network. And you’re probably wondering when the signal is going to get faster.The good news is that the big wireless companies are at work on a new series of “4G” networks, or “fourth generation,” that promise to make the mobile Internet much faster and better.
But it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a couple years until 4G mobile service is spread all over the country. And then we’ll have to see what sorts of 4G gadgets make it to market.
For wireless networks to offer dramatically faster mobile Internet service than they can over today's 3G networks, they need to upgrade to new technologies.
The casual word for these is '4G,' representing the 'fourth generation' of mobile Internet.
Just as new, faster computers have new chips inside them, the 4G wireless technologies are designed to be much faster and more efficient than today's 3G networks.
Just as Blu-ray had to defeat HD-DVD for the next generation of movie discs, there is a format war going on for 4G wireless.
One network technology, 'WiMax,' has had an early head-start, and is already installed in a few dozen U.S. cities with more than 1 million users via Sprint and Clearwire. But a second technology, 'LTE,' is coming on strong, with big support from the top two U.S. wireless companies, Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Based on that alone, it looks like LTE has all but won this format war. So now the question is whether the companies that made early bets on WiMax will cut their losses and switch to LTE, or whether they'll continue to fight the battle.
Either way, most of the 4G services that consumers will end up buying in the U.S. will probably be based on on LTE networks.
Today, 4G service is available from a company called Clearwire, either directly under its 'Clear' brand, or via its partners, which include Sprint Nextel, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. (Google is also an investor in Clearwire and has the ability to re-sell its service under the Google brand, if it ever wants to.)
But pretty much every mobile phone network should eventually offer 4G service, beginning with Verizon Wireless, MetroPCS, and AT&T. And possibly new companies, too.
Today, Clearwire offers service in 52 U.S. markets, including Boston, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Later this year, the company plans to offer service in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Miami, etc. (More in a recent press release.)
Within several months, Verizon Wireless will begin offering 4G service as well. AT&T will start next year. Their rollout will likely start small, taking at least a couple of years to become widespread across their vast networks.
Verizon, for example, plans to blanket 30 markets with 4G service by the end of 2010, covering 100 million people, and plans to have nationwide coverage by 2013.
Discount carrier MetroPCS plans to launch 4G service this year as well.
But 4G is more likely to be a Holidays 2012 or 2013 story for most people than 2010 or 2011.
Today there are already several 4G devices on the market, including a couple smartphones, such as the HTC Evo 4G from Sprint, as well as laptop cards, wireless 'mi-fi' devices, and home base stations.
Eventually, you'll be able to buy all sorts of 4G devices, including laptops with built-in service, pretty much any mobile phone or tablet computer you want with built-in 4G, portable digital TVs, or potentially anything that could use a really fast wireless connection.
You may even someday buy a car with a built-in 4G connection.
It makes sense that Apple would eventually upgrade its smartphones and tablets to 4G from their current 3G connections.
But, just as Apple waited until after its peers to make the iPhone a 3G-capable device -- because of battery life and other considerations -- we think it will wait a while on 4G, too. At least until it's sure that its devices will be able to be 4G-compatible, and have really good battery life, at least relative to normal usage habits.
So, we'd be surprised if Apple sold any 4G gadgets in 2011 -- it just won't be widespread enough. Anything's possible, if course, but the next year or two after that seems more likely. Which means it's likely a 4G Google Android tablet will launch before a 4G iPad, just as a 4G Google Android phone has already beat the 4G iPhone to market.
A 4G Kindle? Don't hold your breath. The Kindle doesn't need much speed, and Amazon wants to pay as little bandwidth charges as it can. We don't see a 4G Kindle in the cards unless Amazon radically reinvents it as a movies/TV device.
You'll be able to do everything that you can do today with 3G, just much faster. And you'll be able to do more.
Remember how broadband at home opened up possibilities that dialup couldn't? The change could be that dramatic.
Mobile TV and video are likely to be big beneficiaries of 4G connections, for instance. While it's a pain in the butt to stream video over 3G -- signal constantly dropping, quality lacking -- this should be much better over 4G.
And just browsing the web on a mobile device (or laptop via a card or mi-fi device) will also be significantly faster.
For now, it appears to cost roughly the same or a little more than 3G service. But it's a little too early to tell how this market is going to shape up.
Our guess is that 4G will start by costing a little more than 3G service, as wireless companies need to maintain their revenue growth trajectories, and will be offering a better value. But if voice phone service starts to fade away, in favour of VoIP services like Skype, it'll be interesting to see how carriers tweak their pricing.
We'll be especially interested to see how companies meter 4G access, especially if video/TV take off. Right now, Clearwire and Sprint offer unlimited data access.
But AT&T recently moved its 3G plans over to metered data (with overage charges). So we'll see when Verizon and AT&T start offering 4G service, whether it's under the all-you-can-eat bundle, or whether access is metered, with monthly caps or overage charges.
That's a question we'll have to wait and see the answer to.
One of the interesting things about 4G, particularly LTE, is that it's a major wireless generation where the U.S. will be considered a pioneer relative to Europe and much of the rest of the world -- versus 3G, where the U.S. was a follower. We don't have the benefit of other big trials and examples to learn from, but we also won't have the reputation of being a second-rate mobile broadband country anymore.
As with 3G, the big question will be how carriers will be able to continue to keep bandwidth supply ahead of demand. That is, will they be able to deliver the speeds that they promised when tens of millions of people start using the service?
AT&T, the no. 2 carrier, has notably failed at that with 3G. And while 4G is more efficient, it also carries bigger promises. So it'll be very interesting to see what happens.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.