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The 4G Revolution - Not So Fast, Speed Queens


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.

[Via CNN and PCWorld]

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  • Yoav Perry

    Not sure where PC World done their tests but this networks performs slower every day. Especially in populated areas where there are many users. In New York City, in spite of 5 bar reception and a 3G icon, the network consistently fail to connect. Often, the 3G badge disappears from the screen for as long as 10 minute even if you are in a perfect reception zone where it worked a few minutes ago or if you are in a taxi going from one end of town to the other. Too often it gets replaced by the E (edge) network which is infuriating. This is especially a problem whenever in an area with many users. Try attending any of the tech conventions, meetups, lectures or cafes frequent by techies and social media lovers (not just in NYC but everywhere) - and you can forget about connecting if 15 people like you are in the room. Heck, not even the voicemail (a data service on the iPhone) will connect. Imagine that all apps that need to use real time internet fail miserably; Facebook, Twitter, Maps and Directions, Social Media, Checking into places on social mobile networks, casting a vote, watching live video, buying stocks, bidding on auctions, transfering funds or checking balance, getting news, sports and weather updates, ...anything timely that relies on internet data. Isn't *THAT* the precise reason I bought this device and shell nearly $400 a year for a data plan add-on alone?

    I often wonder if there is a recourse for users against AT&T for utterly breaching their contract by failing to deliver services that are paid for in good faith. Underestimating traffic is an understandable excuse for year 1. Not for the 4th year of iPhone.

    Funny thing is that in my travels this past year I have experienced service that was 3-5 times faster in Berlin, Tel Aviv, Rome and Toronto.
    So now, with Android season upon us and AT&T's bluntly ignoring 4G, I seriously doubt that their long term strategy is sustainable. A next generation iPhone likely announced in July will get an iPad-like lukewarm welcome if it is locked to AT&T - unless they do something extreme. But let's face it, large telecom don't do anything extreme. They wait for a disaster before they decide to act too little too late. Wierd, considering that AT&T was the first to realize that selling data can be far more profitable than selling talk time.

  • Alexander Hoffmann

    Lately I've been getting a reasonable 4MBit/s throughput on T-Mobile's network here in Trier.
    I told this to a friend of mine who's currently in Osaka, Japan. The only thing he said, that he have a hard time going back to such slow speeds from his current connections: Mobile 20MBit/s down, landline 100MBit/s down.

    I will bless the day that I can get a 1080p on demand movie at my home over the internet, that has the same quality as a BluRay.