4G Is A Big Confusing Mess! Let's Make It Simple, OK?

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If you’ve been watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you’ve probably seen a lot of commercials and plugs for AT&T. (The carrier is sponsoring many of the segments on CBS.)

AT&T’s tagline: “America’s largest 4G network.”

I saw this last weekend. AT&T’s bit happened to air just seconds after a Verizon commercial.

Verizon’s tagline: “America’s largest 4G LTE network.”

So who do you believe when two carriers are telling you they have the largest 4G network? No wonder why people are so confused when it comes to choosing a carrier or a plan or a new phone. With each one boasting the biggest or best or fastest or reliable 4G network, how can you tell the difference?

Although the term “4G” may be technically correct for all these networks, each one is vastly different. Just because one carrier says its network is “4G,” doesn’t mean it’s going to be as fast as 4G on another carrier.

We saw this a few weeks ago when AT&T iPhone 4Ss updated with a tiny 4G symbol next to the signal bar. Many customers thought their phones magically sped up with Apple’s latest iPhone update. They didn’t. 

So to make it easy on you, I’m going to break this whole 4G mess down. I’ll to take you through each kind of 4G network, one by one, and tell you which carrier offers it, where it’s available, and how fast it is.


You’ve probably heard the term “LTE” thrown around a lot lately. That’s because Apple just included the technology in its new iPad

LTE is the newest and fastest kind of 4G network. It stands for “Long Term Evolution.” Carriers claim its about 10 times as fast as 3G, but in my personal tests, I’ve seen speeds much, much faster than that. It’s so fast, download speeds can rival those of your cable or DSL modem. LTE isn’t a guaranteed replacement for your wired Internet connection, but it’s very close.

Simply put, LTE is the fastest of all 4G networks by a longshot.

Only Verizon and AT&T offer LTE in the U.S. Verizon’s LTE network is much, much larger than AT&T’s right now. It’s available in more than 200 cities. AT&T’s LTE network is available in about 30 cities, but it’s growing quickly.

HSPA+ is another type of 4G network, but it’s much slower than LTE. Carriers say HSPA+ is about 3 times faster than 3G. That’s generally true.

Right now, two carriers offer HSPA+: T-Mobile and AT&T.

Wait a second! Didn’t I just say AT&T’s 4G network is the superfast LTE?

Yes, I did! 

That’s where things get confusing. AT&T markets both its (slower) HSPA+ network and its (insanely fast) LTE network as 4G. While calling both HSPA+ and LTE “4G” is technically correct, it’s not accurate to put the two standards on a level playing field.

When you’re buying a 4G phone from AT&T, be sure to ask what you’re getting. If it’s an HSPA+ phone, it’s only going to be a little faster than 3G. If it’s an LTE phone, it’s going to be ridiculously fast. (And that’s only if you live in a city covered by LTE. Make sure you ask if you’re covered before you buy.)

WiMAX is the last of the major 4G standards. (I’m only covering what’s used by the four major carriers.) Sprint’s 4G network runs on the WiMAX standard.

Sprint says its 4G speeds are up to 10 times faster than its 3G speeds. In my experience, that’s usually an exaggeration. But WiMAX is noticeably faster than 3G.

By the way, Sprint will offer LTE very soon. That’s good, but be prepared for the same confusion AT&T has with its 4G network. Don’t be surprised if Sprint calls both its WiMAX and LTE “4G.”

Bottom line
So there are a grand total of three major 4G standards: LTE, HSPA+, and WiMAX. HSPA+ and WiMAX run at approximately the same speed. LTE is the fastest.

What you really need to know is that carriers like AT&T (and soon Sprint) can confuse you by calling two very different standards 4G. Before you buy, ask exactly what kind of 4G phone and network you’re getting.

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