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Verizon joining Sprint, T-Mobile in Seattle’s 4G swim

The announcement last week by Verizon that it plans to launch its 4G wireless cell network in Seattle later this year — a new-technology market already offered here by Sprint and T-Mobile — is a good indication that the race to hook customers on wireless technology with speeds rivalling home and workplace WiFi networks will be intense.

AT&T Mobility, which currently has exclusive rights to the popular iPhone, reportedly will enter the 4G competition here in 2011.

With 4G (fourth generation) wireless technology on cell phones, tablets, or laptop computers, consumers have the download speeds and network capacity to handle live TV, high definition movies in real time, video conferencing, massive role player games or similar services.

The majority of today’s smartphones such as the iPhone or Droid X support 3G service, providing roughly 1.5 to 2.5 megabits of data per second: sufficient for most Internet-related services.  Every carrier differs on what constitutes the upper range of their 3G service, which is emblematic of the hot competition among the carriers even as they prepare for their 4G future.

The high-end speed numbers released by the carriers mean little for the average consumer in daily cellphone use: the speeds a user experiences are generally less than the theoretical maximum limits and vary depending on his or her location, device, network traffic, etc. 

To verify actual 3G network speeds for this article, this writer tested his AT&T iPhone and his Verizon Droid X at a location near his home in Mukilteo where both phones registered 5 bars, or full-strength connectivity.  I used the Speakeasy.com Internet speed test for the Verizon phone and the free Speedtest.net app from the iTunes store with the AT&T phone. The results showed that the AT&T/iPhone was receiving 2.5 mbs; the Verizon/Droid X received 1.92 mbs.  These speeds have been sufficient for surfing the Internet, or even watching streaming movies and TV programs on my cell phones.

By contrast, 4G cell phone services generally deliver more than 10 megabits per second (mbs) at their upper range.  Between 3.5 and 4.5 mbs is generally considered the threshold for streaming live HD movies for smooth, uninterrupted viewing; therefore, the data stream on your cell phone could match or in some cases exceed your home broadband service.

Two competing 4G network technologies are seeking market supremacy: LTE (Long Term Evolution), supported by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile; and WiMax, backed by Sprint and Kirkland-based Clearwire. (Clearwire is building out the WiMax network nationally for Sprint; Sprint is a majority owner in Clearwire.) Which technology is superior is still highly debatable, with LTE and WiMax advocates each proclaiming ultimate victory.

Verizon announced Oct. 6 that its 4G LTE service will be available in Seattle by year’s end, offering speeds from 5 to 12 mbs.  Anticipated coverage will be roughly from Lynnwood on the north to  Fife in the south; the Seattle waterfront on the west and Redmond and Issaquah to the east. Coverage will also be available in Auburn, Bellevue, Bothell, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Edmonds, Federal Way, Kenmore, Kent, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Mill Creek, Renton, Sammamish, Sea-Tac, South Everett, Tukwila, and Woodinville.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will be included in the buildout.  The service is also being launched nationwide in 38 cities and 60 commercial airports.

A Verizon spokesman noted that the first devices available will be USB modems and air card devices for laptops and similar devices.  4G smartphones will not be available until sometime in 2011; early 2011 was not anticipated as a delivery time.

Sprint has been offering 4G mobile service in Seattle since the fall of 2009, with 3 to 10 mbs speeds.  The company currently offers two dual-network phones that receive both 4G and 3G network coverage, the Android-based HTC EVO and the Samsung Epic, and a variety of dual-network plug-in modems for other mobile devices including laptops.

T-Mobile, while a smaller player in the bruising cell phone market, has had its HSPA+ 4G network in Seattle since June, 2010, with “theoretical peak throughput speeds of 21 mbs,” according to company literature, but a spokesperson would not confirm its actual 4G speed.  The company offers two Android-based 4G phones, the G2 and myTouch, both made by HTC, and sells a 4G USB laptop plug-in modem.

While AT&T is not announcing its 4G plans this year, a company spokesperson said the carrier has been rebuilding its Seattle-area infrastructure and updating its software for its 2011 introduction.

Anticipating people’s concerns about the new technology making the their old phones obsolete, the phone companies are assuring the public that both the LTE and WiMax technologies will allow 3G phones to work in the 4G world, and that 4G phones will be backward-compatible when their customers stray into 3G-only signal areas. Whether customers with 4G phones will have some issues with their signal quality when shifting between 4G to 3G signals is a bone of contention between the various companies: part of the ground-level war of the phone marketers as they seek to exploit any advantages over their competitors — even on esoteric issues.

Smartphone customers from the four major phone companies currently enjoy unlimited data service for their 3G phones.  In the 4G realm, Sprint and T-Mobile’s 3G and 4G plans are unlimited; Verizon has yet to announce its pricing and data policies for its new service.

A cautionary note: the unlimited service pertains only to smartphone service; the all-you-can eat data plans do not necessarily pertain to setting up a wireless data plan for a notebook computer.   The wise shopper needs to understand the limits of their uber-fast wireless broadband pipeline when his or her wireless notebook computer is connected to the Internet.  There could be a price to pay: either overage charges or a slowdown in service, depending on each company’s individual policies.

The adage, “the devil is in the details” is alive and well at the dawn of the 4G wireless era.  And so is “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware — in case anyone had doubts.

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