Posted by: Tim | January 19, 2011

Does It Have The 4Gs?

There’s a lot of talk about 4G, 3G, LTE and WiMAX, but what does it all really mean?  Well that’s a very complicated (and debated) topic. I am not an expert in the technical aspects, so I’ll try very hard to give the simplified basics.  Well I’ll at least provide my take on the issue.  If there are any experts out there, please feel free to let me know if I’m messing anything up.

4G vs 3G: What Are They?

Put very simply, the “G” stands for Generation.  So a “4G network” means a wireless network based on fourth-generation technology.  That sounds rather simple, but that’s about where the simplicity ends.  Defining fourth-generation wireless technology is difficult.  There are a few basic stances:

1) The “Official” Definition: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the UN agency for information and communication technology.  In 2000, the ITU defined what a 3G network would be.  So like it did with 3G, the ITU took ownership of 4G and created specifications for what it means to be a 4G network.  There are about a few specifications, but one of them is the ability to deliver downlink speeds of 1Gbps when stationary (such as pedestrians and stationary units) and 100Mbps when mobile (such as cars and trains).  Those speeds surpass average DSL and cable broadband connections.  According to this definition, no commercially available network is 4G, however, the ITU has no jurisdiction to actually control who calls what 4G.

2) A Technology Based Definition: WiMAX and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) are the standards that have been generally accepted to succeed the current generation network (CDMA2000 and GSM).  They both use a newer and more efficient technology (OFDMA).  Their speeds are faster than the 3G specifications, but still fall very short of the ITU’s 4G definition.  However, with the new technology and increased speeds, they are different enough from the 3G standards that they warrant being considered a whole new generation of network.  Note, updates to WiMAX and LTE — WiMAX 2 and LTE-Advanced – promise meet the ITU’s 4G specifications, but neither has been finalized yet, which means networks able to use of them are still years away.

3) A Real World Definition: The GSM network uses High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) as their current 3G technology.  A few providers have begun making extensive upgrades to that technology to create Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+).  HSPA+ is not new technology like LTE or WiMAX is, but it is much better than it’s predecessor (HSPA).  This new HSPA+ will eventually be able to reach speeds beyond what LTE is currently achieving.  In fact, there are some markets where a HSPA+ network is faster than a WiMAX network.  Cellular companies have started using the 4G moniker to describe this newly upgraded network.  In their defense HSPA+ is far beyond what was originally defined as 3G.  Comparing today’s HSPA+ to an early 2000 HSPA network, the average cellphone user would tell you that today’s HSPA+ network is leaps and bounds above it’s predecessor.  The two barely resemble one another anymore.  This is the justification for giving it the 4G moniker.  So the marketing departments have taken 4G and run with it.

So what does ALL of that mean?

In my opinion it means, no one should really have the title 4G yet.  However, if anyone has to get a 4G moniker now, it should go to WiMAX and LTE because they are the new technologies and they are what WiMAX2 and LTE-Advanced (the real 4G technologies) will be based on.  I do not believe HSPA+ should not be called 4G.  However, my opinion doesn’t matter.  So what it really means is the carriers and their marketing departments won.  The ITU recently backed down and said the term 4G “may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMAX, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed.”  I understand the reasoning behind all of these being called 4G and I’ll begrudgingly accept it, but it just makes me curious: what will they call WiMAX2 and LTE-Advanced when they finally come out?  I doubt they’ll still be called 4G.

And what does all this mean for you?  It probably doesn’t mean all that much at all because regardless of what they’re called networks are continuing to get faster and faster.  But now at least you know what all the debate and discussion is about…and knowing is half the battle.

If you want more background on this and Gs 1 thru 4, check out this article on Engadget.  (I was in the middle of writing this and they beat me to it.  Curses!!)

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