The Great G War

Wayne Rash

The first shots of the great G war have been fired. On June 11, Sprint announced the Evo, its first 4G handheld device. On June 14, Apple and AT&T announced the 3G iPhone 4, which takes advantage of AT&T's badly overburdened 3G network. On June 16, T-Mobile announced that its HSPA+ 3G service is now live in 25 major metropolitan areas, including New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. T-Mobile is saying that it's delivering 4G speeds with its network.

If this seems complicated enough, there are still the G wars that have been going on for some time. AT&T has been claiming nationwide 3G coverage, but whether that was true depended on how much you wanted to stretch the definition of 3G. Verizon Wireless has been claiming a much broader 3G footprint. Remember those television commercials where the actors had blue and red maps floating over their heads? Those were the opening skirmishes.

Now, of course, the G wars have gotten personal. AT&T has been criticizing T-Mobile for claiming 4G speeds, saying HSPA and HSPA+ don't qualify as 4G. Sprint has been saying that they're the only company delivering 4G. So which company is telling the truth?

You need to take a look at the actual numbers, something that's lacking in most of the claims in the G wars.

AT&T's 3G speed, using a technology called HSDPA, allows downloads of about 7 megabits per second. Uploads are somewhat slower. This is, in fact, a 3G service, and these are the speeds that the iPhone 4 uses. AT&T has a limit on how much of this you can use without paying for the extra data.

Sprint's 4G speed is (according to Sprint's Web site) something in excess of 10 megabits per second. It's still being built out, but eventually will be nationwide.

T-Mobile's existing 3G service is called HSPA, and it runs slightly in excess of 14 megabits per second for downloads. You may notice that this is-despite the cries of anguish from iPhone users-faster than AT&T's 3G. T-Mobile's HSPA+, which was launched on the 16, has a theoretical download speed slightly over 21 megabits per second. This is about twice as fast as Sprint's 4G. This is why T-Mobile is saying its new service has 4G speeds.

Note that T-Mobile, despite claiming 4G speeds, isn't calling its service 4G. It's just really, really fast 3G. AT&T, meanwhile, is trying to improve its bandwidth by fielding an HSPA network that's similar to T-Mobile's, but which will be slower. It's also calling this 3G, but it's not clear if the iPhone 4 will support HSPA.

The reason that AT&T is not willing to admit that T-Mobile's network is really fast is because it's working on its own 4G network using Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology that will appear sometime in the distant future, which in technology terms means a couple of years.

Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, is quietly building its own LTE network, and already has a couple of cities up and running in test mode. It may have its 4G network running in the next few months. When Verizon's network is running, it will be about twice as fast as T-Mobile's and lots faster than anything AT&T has in the near future.

None of this means anything to you unless you have a device that can use these speeds, and unless you're in an area where the service is available. You also have to decide which service meets your needs because none of these services will interoperate with the other. Unlike the 3G services in Europe where the services and frequencies are consistent throughout the EU, and where all companies are required to allow roaming by the equipment from other companies, in the U.S. high speed wireless data service is basically a mess.

In other words, it doesn't matter which company you choose if you plan to use the service and its corresponding device on the road, you're going to find places where you won't get 4G or even 3G. This means that unless you stick to major metro areas, and check before you travel, you might not get much for your money.

The real cause for all of this, of course, isn't the wireless industry. The FCC's bizarre policies of assigning frequencies through auctions has brought about a situation in which nothing works with anything else. This is your tax dollars at work. Remember that the next time you're trying to upload a photo and it takes 20 minutes.

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