Help Key: 3G, 4G, HSPA+, LTE, WiMax – What Do They Mean To You?

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.

  • 2G: Second Generation. This is what your old flip-phone used to download games like Bejeweled. It was the original way of transferring data over digital cellular networks. Its speed isn’t easily measurable because of the way it sends and receives data, but believe me, it’s not very fast.
  • 2.5G: Improved hardware and infrastructure led to better data speeds; though no one actually ever referred to these as “2.5G,” they’re essentially that, since they’re slower than 3G. There are two major varieties of 2.5G connections:
    GPRS: General Packet Radio Service. At around 30-40Kbps, it’s barely suitable for retrieving a text email. You’ll see a little “G” by your bars.

    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”.

  • 3G: Third Generation. Networks were upgraded for the most part between 2004 and 2007 to allow for much more data traffic. Your 3G data may be traveling under CDMA, WCDMA, GSM, UMTS, or a number of other terms and frequencies, but all you need to know is that your carrier either has or does not have 3G coverage in the area you’re going to be living or working. The technical details you can look up for yourself, but “vanilla” 3G basically provides data rates at up to or around 2Mbps (that’s 2000Kbps).
  • 3.5G: Although some new networks should properly fall under this heading, everyone is opting for “4G” branding instead, mostly because it’s sexier.
  • 4G: Fourth Generation. This term is (like the others) essentially a marketing term when emplyed by carriers. As the different carriers and telecoms roll out faster data networks, some thought they would own the “4G” term by applying it to their network, though the name has little to do with the actual capabilities. While the actual term “4G” has been standardized to mean something none of them offer yet, what you’ll likely be sold on is one of the following:
    HSDPA, HSUPA, HSPA, HSPA+: High Speed Download/Upload Packet Access (+ designates the “Evolved” newer spec). This is a major upgrade to existing 3G networks that allows for (but does not currently actually show) speeds up to 21Mbps at the moment. T-Mobile is using this, and the G2 is currently the only phone using the network, though the MyTouch 4G will as well when it hits the streets. I found my speeds maxed out at about 8Mbps here in central Seattle, which is about as fast as the average broadband connection, and a huge improvement over 3G. The HSPA+ spec does allow for much higher bandwidths, but 21 appears to be the limit for the short- to medium-term.
    LTE: Long-Term Evolution. This is intended to replace 3G networks altogether, and provides a major speed boost and improvements on the way different types of data are transmitted. Verizon’s LTE-based test networks are currently showing 10-15Mbps, though the technology theoretically supports more than ten times that amount of bandwidth. AT&T is planning an LTE network as well, which they’re planning on launching in 2011, but at the moment they’ve activated HSPA+ at a good number of sites around the country.
    WiMax: Originally rolled out as a wireless home broadband service (i.e. Clearwire), but now being improved to allow for access by mobile phones. The current revision allows for up to 40Mbps, and future revisions promise 1Gbps.

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

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.