As the big carriers continue to upgrade their network infrastructure, we’re being subjected to a torrent of confusing new terms, some of them misleading, some of them only a letter or number off from another, and so on. What’s a consumer to do when confronted with such a frightening array of acronyms and jargon? A little straight talk seems to be in order. Let’s get some basic facts down first, then we’ll talk about what matters.
This is by no means a complete or definitive listing of terms, networks, and protocols; it is only a look at the ones most likely to be encountered by consumers today and in the near future. We’ll go through these in basic chronological order, which also happens to be more or less in order of speed, from slowest to fastest, with some exceptions.
The dates I provide are general guides for popularization and common usage, not establishment or approval of the tech. A basic speed gauge to keep in mind: 800Kbps = 100KB/s. 100KB is the size of the image at the top of this post, so an 800Kbps connection would take one second to load it, an 80Kbps connection would take 10 seconds, an 8000Kbps would take a tenth of a second, etc.
-EDGE: Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution. About three times faster than GPRS, using similar technology, so ~100-120Kbps. Occasionally called 2.75G to distinguish from GPRS. Signified by an “E”.
Look, I even made a (very approximate) chart for you:
So. Those are the terms. Very informative, aren’t they? —No?
In fact, no, they’re still a jumble of in-progress improvements, rolling out to some regions but not others, and likely to see improvements and setbacks over the next year or two that we have no way of foreseeing. And of course, what you’re interested in is whether any of these acronyms represent a VISE — a visible improvement to speed and experience.
The truth is that even the applications and services that use the highest amounts of bandwidth — HD streaming video is probably the most popular — come nowhere near the limitations on these networks. An HD video is transmitted at around 3-4Mbps, and with lost packets, redundancy, and so on, you’re probably looking at 5-6Mbps maximum. And that’s for a home theater or desktop system. Mobile apps use far less data. You’re being sold on capability above and beyond what is actually in use, or what will likely be used in the next couple years — which are the only years that matter, since you’re not signing a lifetime contract.
If in a few years it turns out that not only is LTE coming through with those high speeds they promised, but also you need a huge amount more bandwidth for your mobile torrent seedbox (or, more likely, your “mobile” connection will be your only data connection), then you can skip out on T-Mo and join up. But these hypotheticals are extremely low priority considering the much more salient issues of availability, price, signal, and handsets.
What matters is what’s available and how fast it is, where you are. When you go to the carrier store to check out their selection, don’t listen to the garbage talk about how you can stream ten movies at once. And don’t give any weight to shrill claims of the largest or fastest network, since those claims are both irrelevant for most users and short-lived, as the balance of power seems to shift on a monthly basis.
The new networks are all fast as hell, much faster than your 3G phone. What you need to find out is whether you can even get at those speeds where you live, work, and hang out. Ask a representative about local coverage, plans to expand to other parts of the city, what average speeds are in the area, and so on. T-Mobile might have super high-speed HSPA+ coverage downtown, but not in the suburbs until 2012. Verizon might not have LTE coming out in your area at all. WiMax might have a line-of-sight issue with your neighborhood. Here is some recent coverage info on T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint. Look for stuff like that.
Your current phone likely maxes out at 1.5-2Mbps if you’re lucky, but as I’m sure you know, that only matters if you can get a signal — something AT&T notoriously failed on with their 3G network in New York. Even something like HSPA, which is actually an improvement to 3G networks and not a new one per se, needs to be rolled out area by area, and coverage will be as spotty as other services.
Try to ignore the marketing fluff surrounding the term “4G,” and get practical. One of these new networks may be best for you, but in order to not get conned, it’s something you have to investigate personally. Ask the carrier representatives, ask your friends, and of course, ask us.