4G Wireless: The Next-Generation Wireless Evolution

Five years ago, “going online” with a cell phone typically meant opening a crunched up mobile browser on your slick new Motorola Razr, taking a full minute to type out a search term on a god-awful numeric keypad, and fishing around for sports scores on one of a handful of sites you can actually browse.

How times have changed.

A new generation of data-savvy smartphones led by the likes of Apple, Google and Palm have turned handsets into portable televisions, radios, and online gaming platforms as much as phones. And they’re all trying to squeeze data through the same sliver of airwaves we used back in those Razr days. Like a city’s entire population suddenly switching from Geo Metros to Ford Excursions, telecom providers are finding their 3G networks choked by voracious consumers.

That’s a problem.

Enter 4G. The oft-discussed predecessor to present-day technology has existed in technical papers and IT rags for years, but only recently has it actually begun to go mainstream with the promise of broadband connection speeds without the wires. Wondering what 4G is, what it’s capable of, and whether you should hop on board? You’ve come to the right place.

What is 4G?

Don’t let this surprisingly intuitive naming scheme spin you around: 4G simply means fourth generation. Before it, there were 3G technologies like HSDPA and EV-DO (like on an iPhone or Motorola Droid), and before them, there were 2G technologies, like EDGE and GPRS (like on that old Razr). All of the “Gs” represent umbrella terms for a number of different technologies, and 4G is no different. The competing 4G technologies in the United States are known as Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax.

LTE vs. WiMax

Engineers could fill volumes on the minute technical differences between the way these two different technologies handle data, pieces of the radio spectrum, and voice, but the main thing you need to know is simply that they’re not compatible. A WiMax device won’t work on an LTE network, even though they’re both 4G, the same way an HSDPA device won’t work on an EV-DO network, even though they’re both 3G.

Who’s pushing what? Verizon and AT&T have both put their weight behind LTE in the U.S., while Sprint and Clear (which work in a partnership) have both embraced WiMax. The latter companies already offer WiMax in select markets, giving them a slight head start, but many experts believe LTE will eventually reach greater saturation due to its big-name backing. Unlike the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray war, there’s a good chance both standards will continue to exist in parallel.

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