State of 4G rollout in US

Sunday, December 12, 2010, 8:19 by binay

4G rollout in U.S: 4G service providers and coverage, 4G-ready phones, 4G USB dongles and data plans

Many of you have been wondering as to what that ‘Rule the air’ ad currently playing on TVs these days–yeah, the one in which a guy gets a box in his mail from Verizon and then throws a ‘lightning belt’ into the sky like a javelin–really stands for. Well, as the giant wireless carrier likes to put it, it’s all about being ‘Lightning Fast’. Welcome to the world of 4G (fourth-generation telecommunications network)! And the big 4G rollout from Verizon is happening this Sunday, Dec. 5–in over 60 U.S. airports, as well as in around 27 of the 38 domestic markets the company plans to launch the service by the end of 2010. Verizon will deploy a cellular longer range technology called Long Term Evolution (LTE)–a wireless protocol being promoted by Ericsson–that can deliver, theoretically, download speeds of up to 50Mbps.

So what’s the big fuss all about? Speed, folks– if Verizon’ 3G network is currently giving you an average data download speed of between 500Kbps and 1.2Mbps, the carrier claims that its 4G setup will deliver data transfer rates of 5 to 12 megabits per second for downloads and 2-5Mbps for uploads.

Verizon is also promising a 50% reduction in “latency”–the delay it takes data to move from one point to another in a network, leading to end users’ frustration (remember all that buffering which happens when you are trying to see your favorite YouTube clip?)–on its 4G network, as compared to its 3G setup.

Verizon clearly has some catching up to do. After all, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire were first out of the gates on the 4G front in the U.S., with the latter’s 4G wireless network now already available in more than 55 markets currently across the country. Clearwire and Sprint Nextel have embraced WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access)–a standard for wireless broadband specifications–as the technological backbone of their 4G rollout. Basically a kind of an extension of the typical Wi-Fi network, WiMAX is touted to enable theoretical data download speed of up to 75Mbps, but Sprint’s WiMAX network has been found to deliver speeds in the 6-8Mbps range with upload speeds ranging from 2Mbps to 4Mbps.

And then, you have T-Mobile and AT&T, both of whom have aggressively upgraded their existing 3G infrastructure to networks based on HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access Plus)–a cellular longer range technology that can theoretically support data download speed of 21Mbps. On the ground, however, AT&T and T-Mobile’s HSPA+ networks enable download rates in the 5-10Mbps range, with upload speeds measured in the range of 5-7Mbps. AT&T, we gather, is also planning to conduct LTE trials in the near future.

4G-ready phones in US

It goes without saying that one has to have a 4G-ready cell phone in order to be able to enjoy all these amazing (at least, that’s what is being promised) data transfer speeds. You will require a phone that is LTE-ready for Verizon, WiMAX-enabled for Sprint and HSPA+ compatible for either T-Mobile or AT&T.

So what are your options, as things stand today? Sprint is the trend setter here as well, with its partnership with HTC and Samsung resulting in the HTC Evo and the Samsung Epic–both compatible with Spring’s 4G wireless networks. Those of you looking for alternatives have HTC’s G2 and MyTouch smartphones, manufactured for T-Mobile’s 4G network, to choose from.

Verizon users, though, will have to wait until at least the first quarter of 2011 before they can get their hands on a LTE 4G-ready high end phone (CES 2011 in January could give us some clues–considering the ongoing rumors about Verizon possibly teaming up with Apple to deliver a 4G version of the iPhone!).

Are 4G phones compatible with 3G networks, some of you might ask? Yes–a dual mode in 3G/4G smartphones ensures that once users are outside the 4G service area, cell phone connections will revert to 3G links.

4G data plans and USB dongles in US

Verizon has launched two LTE 4G-ready USB air cards–the LG VL600 and the Pantech UML290–for laptop users. Both these dongles, which are equipped to access the 3G network when 4G isn’t available, will cost $99 with a $50 discount and a two-year contract for the service. You can buy the LG VL600 at Verizon Wireless retail outlets and the firm’s online store, while one will have to wait a little longer for the Pantech 4G USB modem (no exact release date announced).

The LG manufactured VL600 USB dongle, which uses a SIM card, is pretty big–thankfully, the buyer is given a clip and extra cable! Preliminary user tests suggest that the modem supports down- and upstream speeds of almost 5 to 6Mbps and 1Mbps, respectively. But one major grudge we have with the LG VL600 is that Verizon didn’t deem it necessary to include any Mac support for this device (some reports are claiming that the Pantech UML290 isn’t Mac-compatible, too)! Still, if you have a notebook and are looking for some real blazing bandwidth on the road, Verizon’s LTE-compatible USB dongle is a pretty attractive proposition.

To use these two Verizon USB LTE modems, the company has announced two data plans for potential 4G subscribers–monthly data download limit of 5 Gigabytes for $50 ($10 cheaper than the carrier’s current 3G wireless service), or 10GB of data per month in exchange for a $80 rental fee. Customers exceeding this threshold will have to shell out $10 for every 1GB of additional data download.

On the other hand, Clearwire is offering two 4G data plans–either you can go in for a $25-a-month scheme, called the Clear 4G, which boasts download speeds of up to 6Mbps and upstream speeds of up to 1Mbps. Or else, there is the $55-per-month Clear 4G+ plan, wherein subscribers can connect to Sprint’s 3G network whenever they are unable to access the Internet through 4G. And since Sprint is an investor in Clearwire, those of you subscribing to the Clear 4G+ service can also access the former’s 3G network.

Finally, you have AT&T’s wireless laptop cards–the USBConnect Adrenaline and the USBConnect Shockwave, both of which are compatible with HSPA+ and LTE.

Let’s look at what the USBConnect Adrenaline has to offer for the $49.99 price tag (with a two-year contract and after a mail-in rebate) it carries. Manufactured by LG, this portable broadband modem comes with preloaded GPS and a microSD card slot, allowing you to use it as a storage device. Another USP of this dongle is that it will be the first AT&T LTE-upgradeable modem, after the release of a software update in mid-2011 when AT&T rolls out LTE–until then, subscribers can use this device on AT&T’s existing HSPA+ network.

AT&T’s second wireless laptop card, the USBConnect Shockwave, is made by Sierra Wireless, and is likely to be unveiled by the end of the year. This one is free with a two-year service agreement and mail-in discount.

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