4G wireless technology: A look at what's ahead

As Sprint rolls out its 4G network and Verizon and AT&T plan their own, The Times asks analyst Charles Golvin what cellphone users should expect.

June 13, 2010|By Kristena Hansen, Los Angeles Times

The first cellphone in the U.S. to use fourth-generation wireless technology — better known as 4G — debuted this month with the promise of super-fast download speeds, smooth video streams and even video chat. The phone came from Sprint Nextel Corp.; Verizon Wireless plans to launch its 4G network this year, with AT&T Inc. to follow in 2011.

But how revolutionary is 4G? Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin talked to The Times about how it could change mobile communication.

How much faster is 4G?

Most 3G subscribers today can expect about 1 megabit per second download speeds on average. 4G networks might deliver as fast as 6 or 7 megabits per second initially. Eventually, a 4G network hopes to be about 10 times faster than 3G.

Will 4G improve voice calls and texting?

The impact on traditional cellular services, like voice and text messaging, will be negligible because 4G networks are being designed for data.

However, because of the specific airwaves that AT&T and Verizon will use for their 4G networks, consumers will find that these networks provide better service indoors than some of today's networks.

What will 4G enable us to do on our phones that we can't do with 3G?

One thing you'll be able to do is watch a high-definition video stream on services like Hulu.

It will also be possible to take information from the Internet and interact with the real world in ways that maybe weren't dreamt of a few years ago. For example, if you were traveling in a foreign country, you could hold up your phone and look at anything written in another language, and the phone would show it to you in real time as if it were written in your own language.

A car is going to be very much connected in the future. Many cars have navigation systems today, but many of those navigation systems are offline. But tomorrow, as 4G networks expand, that navigation system will be updated in real time with traffic information, changes in new roads or streets becoming one-way.

What should consumers know about the two 4G technologies: WiMax, which Sprint uses, and LTE, which Verizon and AT&T will use?

The vast majority of the next generation of networks will be built using LTE. For example, when you travel overseas — if you have service from an LTE network, it's more likely your device will work in 4G in other parts of the world.

Because the cell providers will be using different technologies, will some be faster than others?

I believe that Verizon's technology will be faster than Sprint's when Verizon launches. But because Sprint has more spectrum, Sprint's customers may likely find that they get faster service than Verizon customers. AT&T will use the same technology as Verizon.

Is T-Mobile lagging behind?

Yes. T-Mobile has no concrete plans to build the next-generation network today.

So far, Sprint has expanded its 4G network to more than 30 markets, but it won't be in Los Angeles until later this year. Why was L.A. so far down the list?

Most companies want to launch new services in a market that is constrained or limited, and Los Angeles is a gigantic market. So launching here would require a much larger investment in the network in order to provide service to all of Los Angeles.

They need a market, initially, that is manageable and has good geographical attributes, like not too many hills.

Will there be increases in monthly plans and fees?

The only answer we have today, concretely, is Sprint's network. For example, Sprint just released their first 4G phone, the HTC Evo, and they're charging an additional $10-per-month service fee to use it on a 4G network.

Will 4G pose any additional threats to online security and privacy?

4G by itself won't bring new security threats. Rather, the more people use the Internet on a variety of devices, the more they have to be aware of security threats.

kristena.hansen@latimes.com

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