by Kevin Tang '17
For the past few years, mobile networks have been increasingly pushing their “innovative” and “lightning-fast” 4G networks, each laying its own claim to having the fastest speeds or greatest coverage. But what exactly is this 4G that everyone is so hyped up about? Ask the average person on the street, and chances are that they won’t know many details at all. Apart from the logical fact that 4G stands for “fourth generation” and is supposedly markedly faster than 3G speeds, most of the general public would not normally dig much deeper than that. In all fairness, the 4G concept is complicated. Although networks such as LTE are edging closer and closer to becoming veritable broadband 4G networks, much of the marketing one may see on television or internet marketing ads are just that: marketing, and does not necessarily refer to a true 4G network.
Let’s start with a brief historical overview. Cellular technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, seeing a new generation of mobile networks roughly every 10 years. The first “1G” phones, based on analog radio signals, were introduced in the 1980’s. Needless to say, network speeds were far from snappy, as data usage was never intended to be a function of cellular devices. The introduction of 2G phones in the early 90’s brought mobile networks to the digital realm, boosting speeds to anywhere between 10 kbps to 200 kbps (to give you some perspective, the infamous Brown Secure network clocks in at around 10-15 Mbps download). When Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2001, revolutionizing the mobile phone industry in the process, it was running GSM+EDGE, a 2G network (1). In 2003, the first 3G-enabled phone was released. 3G networks such as HSPA+ initially touted speeds starting at upwards of 384 kbps, though they have since been developed to have speeds dozens of times faster (2).
Finally, in 2010, the first 4G phone was released to the public. Or was it? The definition and boundaries between generations since the birth of 2G devices has been nebulous at best. The Internationsl Telecommunications Union-Radio communications sector (ITU-R) sets the official standards for a 4G network, but many of the initial “4G” networks publicized did not actually meet those standards. According to the ITU-R, 4G networks must be based only on IP packet switching and use only FDE methods instead of spread switching radio technology as in previous generations. That may sound like alien-speak, but in terms of speed it translates to the expectation that 4G networks have data rates of around 100 Mbps on a highly mobile platform and 1 Gbps on a relatively stationary platform (6). Novel networks developed at the outset of this decade include WiMAX by Sprint and LTE by Verizon (Long Term Evolution…who comes up with these names?). These are generally the networks referred to by ‘4G.’ WiMAX has been claimed to top out at around 40 Mbps while LTE can offer speeds of around 100 Mbps, but real world speeds tend to average much lower – anywhere from 4Mbps to 30 Mbps (3). These networks, although based on novel technology and significantly faster than those of the 3G era, still are not compliant with ITU-R 4G requirements. As a result, they are often referred to as “3.9G,” as true 4G networks are technically still in development (6).
The real confusion with 4G, however, stems from the marketing ploys by network providers. Verizon and Sprint have traditionally been the champions of 4G technology (Verizon with LTE, Sprint with WiMAX) and had been developing the technologies for years prior to its conception, but both T-Mobile and AT&T have been boasting about their respective “4G” networks since late 2010. In reality, both carriers have been running HSPA+ (which, if you recall from earlier, is technically a 3G network). Although both networks are based on 3G technology, the development cycles have run for long enough that both networks clock in with speeds that rival those of the fledgling 4G networks of the time (4). In 2011, T-Mobile upgraded its HSPA+ network to 42Mbps without even mentioning LTE (3). Even now, signal reception on a T-Mobile phone will drop from 4G directly to E; there is no 3G intermediate. T-Mobile’s “no overage” plans also drop customers directly to E once the high-speed data cap is reached (E for EDGE, a 2G network…that’s almost 1000 times slower than Brown-Secure). To be fair, however, both AT&T and T-Mobile have since rolled out their own iterations of LTE in 2012 and 2013, respectively. T-Mobile currently boasts the newest of LTE networks, and as a result holds the highest ceiling speed of 150 Mbps (if you can get over the sometimes spotty coverage) (5). Recent rumors have also placed a rough estimate of 5G networks’ release at 2020. The irony? These eventual 5G networks may be merely true 4G mobile networks that can finally meet the speed standards (6).
The tech community has truly been on a journey. From one generation to the next, the continuous progress never ceases to inspire awe and anticipation of what further improvements could offer. As data rates continue to increase at an exponential rate, 4G speeds – marketing ploy or not – will continually develop to serve as a transition between now and the oh-so-bright (and fast) future ahead.