The noise emanating from the pen in the communications zoo where the mobile carriers reside seems to be increasing. The U.S.'s largest mobile carriers, Verizon and AT&T, are trumpeting the impending arrival of 4G, the sequel to 3G, when G comes out of retirement to fight a malevolent band of dial-up connections expected to supersize mobile speeds. But before anyone gets too excited about the idea of being able to download an entire series of Caprica faster than Usain Bolt runs 100 meters, let's take a closer look at what's been promised versus what's been delivered so far.
European residents, while not enjoying anything so fast as, say, Taiwan or South Korea, have been bombarded by the idea of superfast broadband for both at home and mobile use for some time now. 7Mbps is the fastest service available in Britain, for example, but Virgin Media claims to have a 50Mbps service for home broadband (as far as I can gather, there are about three streets in a suburb of Bristol that get anything close to that speed). Portugal is expected to get a 21Mbps service by the end of this year, but head-and-shoulders (and hips) above the competition is Scandinavia. Denmark and four Swedish cities are about to be blessed with an HSPA+ 3G network that will rock 84Mbps. Current 3G speeds in the U.S. are around 2Mbps, compared to 5Mbps for broadband.
Getting to 100Mbps (the International Telecommunication Union's benchmark for 4G) is going to be a big schlepp, to say the least. Installing a 4G network will require an extra 10,000 cell sites, each of which will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The estimated cost to carriers will be around $8 billion, and will take three to five years to complete, increasing their operating expenses by 30%, and affecting their profit margins—which are already skinnier than your average hungry cheetah.
Even last year, AT&T was debating whether to beef up its HSPA or switch to LTE, or Long Term Evolution, technology. And they're still hedging. "It will take several years to build out 4G," says a spokesman for AT&T, Mark Siegel. "Our implementation of LTE will be timed to when the infrastructure is fully built out, so we're continuing to invest in our 3G network."
The carrier, which was outed last year as having the slowest speeds in the U.S., has cleaned up its act, as PC World's latest 3G network performance tests proved. AT&T's speeds and reliability have zoomed from a lamentable 818kbps with 68% reliability to 1.4Mbps with 94% reliability—so perhaps Luke Wilson is right after all.