4G Is Not the Only Game in Town

Carl Weinschenk

The focus of the wireless world, for the last year or more, has been on 4G.


It's understandable. There is great promise, and a bit of drama as well: Which approach will predominate? Long-Term Evolution or WiMax? What will the world in which they coexist look like? Will they merge or will devices be released that support both, as Maravedis analyst Robert Syputa suggested to me last week.


These all are good questions. But it is worth remembering that 4G isn't everything. Indeed, life is good before 4G. eWEEK reports that T-Mobile has deployed High Speed Packet Access Plus (HSPA+) technology, which folks informally call 3.5G technology, liberally in its New York City, Connecticut and Rhode Island footprint. The story says that the new technology offers and will support the new myTouch 3G Slide and Garminfone.


The new areas include Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse in upstate New York; Providence, RI and the Connecticut cites of Hartford, New Haven, Milford and Stamford. The company says it is serving HSPA+ to 30 million subscribers now, and will reach 185 million people in 100 metropolitan areas by year end.


HSPA+ may not be 4G, but it is no slouch. Here is some good background from PC Magazine from earlier this year. HSPA+ seems to be a natural for T-Mobile. The writer says that the carrier is constrained by the relatively small amount of bandwidth it owns, and HSPA+ is a good bet for that-and it is cheap to boot. It is backward compatible to existing HSPA networks, which allows a good deal of equipment reuse, the story says.


The story also makes the point that the system is no slow poke, with theoretical download speeds of 21 Megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of 5.8 Mbps. Telstra is toying with using bonding to cobble together a 42 Mbps pipe-more on that trial is available from iTWire -- and Mobile World Congress vendors showed technology that doubles that.


AT&T, even though it is on the road to LTE, also is rolling out HSPA+. The company earlier this month said that it will make the network available to 250 million customers this year. The 14.4 Mbps downstream speeds double what currently is available to its 3G customers. That speed is significantly slower than the theoretical limits discussed in the PC Magazine story. The story says AT&T's original plan was to migrate directly from 3G to 4G, but that they have rethought things and opted for the interim step.


The announcement by T-Mobile got a bit of reaction from AT&T, according to Fierce Wireless. The carrier objects to T-Mobile's positioning its HSPA+ technology as offering "4G speeds." The first question to consider is whether claiming "4G speeds" is close enough to claiming 4G outright to be considered misleading. Probably. While it's difficult to be precise -- 4G isn't well defined -- most folks would acknowledge that a reasonable definition excludes HSPA+.


It all is very complicated, since there are many approaches, and each works differently depending on several variables. The key is to remember that 4G is a great game -- but not the only game in town.

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