With technology, the trick is to buy in at the right time and at the right price. So with the next generation of mobile--dubbed 4G, or fourth generation--rolling out now, should you take the plunge?
The short answer is yes. In most cases you'll get faster connections and the most cutting-edge phones, at a price that isn't too much higher than what you're paying for 3G (this generation) service today. But that doesn't mean there aren't some decisions to make, made more difficult by a lot of jargon. Here's a rapid-fire 4G primer to equip you for some next-generation wireless shopping.
What is 4G, exactly?
Faster mobile internet service. How much faster? It depends. And you probably won't get a straight answer from your service provider. One problem is that the term 4G has morphed from something with a strict industry definition (100 Mbps-plus mobile service, or networks about 10 to 20 times faster than current ones, according to the International Telecommunication Union), to a marketing phrase mobile providers use to describe their upgraded networks, regardless of measured speed. So, caveat emptor.
What are LTE, HSPA+ and WiMax?
These are the names of the technologies used to deliver 4G service. Why should you care? It's smart to have some sense of what the providers are betting on, because it will impact the speeds you get and the phones you have access to.
Here's enough info to make you dangerous: WiMax data networks were the first, with Clear and Sprint offering WiMax mobile data services last year. But WiMax hasn't taken off as expected, and those providers are considering other technologies. HSPA+ underlies networks from T-Mobile and AT&T and can reach theoretical speeds of about 21 Mbps (but more likely around 5 Mbps). The gold standard is LTE (Long Term Evolution), which Verizon launched recently. Sprint has talked about using LTE, and AT&T is rolling out its combined HSPA+ LTE network. It's the technology most likely to deliver 1 Gbps of bandwidth (about 1,000 times current levels).
Why does any of this matter?
Right out of the gate, it may not. You can go to almost any provider today and order up 4G service and get something faster than you had last year. Most providers can deliver service roughly in the 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps range in the real world. Place your bets on LTE-based operators--the technology has the biggest upside and the most backers right now, which means it will also likely get the best phones. Faster downloads and the most cutting-edge mobile devices? Sounds like a winning formula.
|Operator||Technology||Speeds||Costs (per month)|
|AT&T||HSPA+ and LTE||Up to 6 Mbps||$25 for 2 GB|
|Verizon||LTE||5 to 12 Mbps||$50 for 5 GB; $80 for 10 GB|
|T-Mobile||HSPA+||21 Mbps peak; 5 to 10 Mbps average||$25 for 200 MB; $40 for 5 GB|
|Sprint||WiMax||3 to 6 Mbps average; 10 Mbps peak||$100 for unlimited|