By Brandon Miniman | December 20, 2011 2:29 PM
I should start off by saying that while I refer to “4G” throughout this article, I have LTE in mind, and not HSPA+ which AT&T and T-Mobile are claiming to be 4G. While HSPA+ can indeed provide LTE-like speeds, it is built off of last-generation technology, and the theoretical limit in data speeds is far lower than will be possible with LTE with LTE Advanced.
And so it’s inevitable: cellular data speeds are going to increase thanks to new network technologies. And that’s a really good thing. Those of you that have been using smartphones and mobile data devices since the beginning of last decade might remember the painfully slow data speeds provided by technologies like GPRS. On a good day, you could muster half the data speed that your home 56k modem could provide. At this level of throughput, the mobile web experience wasn’t exactly enjoyable with webpage load times in minutes, and not seconds like we have today.
Several years later we saw the move to 2G networks with EDGE and 1xRTT which started to make the mobile web more enjoyable, but by a small margin. It wasn’t much later after 2G that 3G networks came around to provided real broadband-like speeds thanks to UMTS and EV-DO network technology.
The move from 2G to 3G was huge, especially as we saw smarter devices that could handle the faster data speeds. Suddenly it became possible to download big email attachments, to browse the web without having to wait, and to tether with a laptop to be able to get work done from anywhere.
The move from 3G to 4G, upon us now, is going to be far less significant from a capability standpoint. Yes, it’s great for marketing and PR (just ask the carriers), and it’s even great for bragging rights for you and me. But consider this: 4G speeds of today, whether you’re on HSPA+ on T-Mobile, LTE on Verizon or AT&T, or WiMax on Sprint, effectively feels like you’re over a fast WiFi connection anywhere you go. Being on a fast WiFi connection at all times is great, but it’s not transformative and it’s not a game-changer just yet. There aren’t suddenly a bevy of new things that you can do on your mobile device with “fast WiFi” that you couldn’t do on slower-but-still-quick-WiFi (3G). Not only that, mobile devices don’t have the processing power to take advantage of much faster data speeds.
How do our tablet and smartphones benefit from 4G speeds? Today, there are only a small handful that I can think of:
1. Video calling: Most phones now have front-facing video cameras. But how often do you really use it to make a video call? On a 4G connection, video calling becomes quite good, but what does that matter if you’re more inclined to send a text message or make a voice call?
2. The web: Undoubtedly the web becomes faster over 4G, but not by a linear magnitude. For example, if your 3G connection maxes out at 3mbps down, and your 4G connection gets you to 15mbps down, the time it takes a web page to load is not going to decrease by a multiple of 5x. Perhaps 2x or 3x, and at that point, we’re talking a difference of mere seconds.
3. Email, attachments, Facebook, Twitter, and the like: As with the web, these services become faster when your device is on a 4G network, but not at the same magnitude of increase in data speed. Does your life get much better when your Twitter timeline updates in 3 seconds instead of 6? Does your productivity increase tangibly if your Excel spreadsheet downloads in 10 seconds instead of 17?
4. Gaming: One of the main advantages of 4G technology, especially with LTE and WiMax, is better ping times, which is very important when doing online gaming. Not only that, but you need a fat pipe both up and down to be able to experience the smoothest multiplayer gaming experience possible.
Two things need to happen for 4G to matter. First, devices need to be able to handle faster speeds. Perhaps we’ll see it with the upcoming round of quad-core tablets and phones, but increasing data speeds by a factor of 10x should provide near 10x faster web page load times. We’re far from that today because of these limitations in hardware, not to mention software.
Second, we need new uses for all of this bandwidth, and Twitter and Facebook don’t count. Perhaps we’ll start to see cloud-based gaming, where super high FPS games are rendered on a server in a cloud, and pushed down to your device. Because the pipe is so fast, you’d never be able to tell that all of the heavy-lifting is being done elsewhere. Or perhaps streaming video quality, like through Netflix or YouTube, will dramatically increase so that watching videos on the go is a true high-fidelity experience.
And so while having a 4G phone is nice, it doesn’t provide a significant benefit over a solid 3G phone when it comes down to use case scenarios. That’s likely to change in the future, but as of today, I don’t care much about 4G.
Do you agree or disagree?