4G: Taking Extreme Speed to New Limits

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Commentary: 4G Brings Great Benefits, But Also Great Challenges

By Ed Hardy

After years of slowly building, 4G networks are finally coming into their own. All of the top wireless carriers offer this high-speed data service in one form or another, and these are opening up new possibilities for smartphones and tablets. But there are problems among the possibilities, too.

Faster Is Better

One of the best examples of 4G’s potential is video conferencing. With a super-fast connection, it’s possible to video chat with a distant friend from your phone. No longer do you have to interact with a disembodied voice coming out of your phone — you can talk to your spouse, your children, your co-workers face-to-face, wherever you are.

Beyond that, it’s good for any kind of streaming video. You can watch Netflix during your break at work. You and your friends can laugh at silly YouTube videos without a long boring wait while they download.

For business users, 4G means being more efficient. If someone sends you a big Word document, spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation to check over, you can download and look at it, right on your phone or tablet in just a few seconds. It’s the end of, “It’ll have to wait until I get back to the office.”

Nothing Good Is Free

That is certainly true in this case. Adding support for the most popular 4G standard, LTE, to their networks is costing the carriers billions. That’s with a “B”. Verizon and AT&T can afford it, but the price tag is so high that implementing LTE is going to strain Sprint almost to the breaking point. It’s so expensive that it’s not clear when or if T-Mobile will be able to afford it. These costs are being passed along to you and I. So far consumers haven’t seen dramatic increases in their bills, but the cost for data plans keep inching up. A few years ago unlimited data plans were widely available, but now many carriers have gone to tiered plans that limit how much users can access the Web, streaming audio and video, etc.

Cost Isn’t The Only Challenge

LTE is still relatively new, and there are still bugs. Verizon was the first U.S. carrier to widely implement this standard, and it suffered through four major outages last year, three in December.

The hassle early 4G adopters noticed the most, however, was the power drain. Connecting to these new high-speed networks drained the batteries of smartphones in an irritatingly short amount of time. Fortunately, the 4G models that came out late in 2011 generally had this solved.

These issues are all ones that will be smoothed out in the coming months. Then the promise of 4G networks to make our lives better will be fully realized.

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