Comparing G Speeds Not Easy as 1, 2, 3 (or 4)

Wayne Rash

By now you've heard all of the hype about 3G and 4G devices, and you've seen the claims that they provide really fast wireless communications. No doubt you've thought about getting a 3G or 4G wireless laptop card so that you can have decent communications when you're out of range of your Wi-Fi access point. Unfortunately, the whole G question is still very fuzzy, and if you're not careful, you could find yourself saying something like, 'G, this is slow.'

Part of the problem with finding true happiness when it comes to actual communications speeds in wireless has to do with the confusion about what 3G and 4G mean, both in terms of technology and in terms of data rates. More of the confusion comes from the marketing departments at the carriers who want a catchy way of making things sound fast, such as by saying that their service is '4G.'

I talked about this confusion in my last blog entry. But I didn't really tell you what this all means as a practical matter. Now I will.

First of all, there are only two reasonably fast wireless services available right now. They are Sprint's 4G service and T-Mobile's HSPA+ 3G service. Ironically, the T-Mobile service is much faster than Sprint in theory, and slightly faster in the real world. Sprint's 4G service is really the company's long-awaited WiMax service as delivered by Clearwire. It's a 4G technology, but it doesn't meet the ITU's definition of 4G performance, which requires 100 mbps speeds.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, has upgraded its existing HSPA network to be faster, allowing it to deliver about 21 mbps (in theory). service. The problem, of course, is finding such an area. Sprint's coverage maps are nearly useless, and T-Mobile's are frequently out of date. Perhaps the best plan is to ask an experienced sales person at a store local to the area where you need coverage whether the service works there. They will probably know. But you also should make sure you have return privileges. 3G and 4G coverage is subject to some peculiar propagation characteristics. You could find excellent coverage in one place in your office, for example, and no coverage at all in another.

It's impossible to predict how this will work out. Sprint's frequencies are very different from T-Mobile's so what might apply to one does not transfer to the other. The one sure thing is that if you do find that one or the other of these services works well for you, it could well be your fastest network connection. Most ISPs don't provide particularly fast net throughput on their wired networks, and may not be as fast as your wireless connection.

And, of course, the whole G speed issue goes beyond that. In addition to having a great wireless connection, you need to make sure your carrier has a fast backhaul network. Connecting to a 4G WiMax service with a T1 line for backhaul means you're running at T1 speeds regardless of the wireless performance.

So there. Now it's time to decide if you want to deal with this, or simply decide you can wait until true 4G becomes ubiquitous before you try to go to your e-mail and download your spam. Unfortunately, I can't help you with that.

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