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4G explained: A guide to LTE, WiMax, HSPA+, and more

4G carrier breakdown

In this section, we will detail each carrier’s current and future 4G plans, including what network technologies they’ve chosen, what 4G devices are available, in what geographical regions 4G coverage is accessible, how fast they’re network is, and how much they’re charging.

AT&T’s 4G network

AT&T Logo

Summary: If you’re on AT&T, you aren’t terribly far behind, but the carrier was caught off-guard by 4G. In fact, AT&T was actually mad at Verizon and T-Mobile for discussing 4G services back in May 2010. Since then, the carrier has done a complete 180, and now flaunts the 4G label more than any other carrier, plastering it on every phone with HSPA+, and some that don’t even have that. AT&T claims its strong implementation of HSPA+ will allow it to have a strong backup if customers move out of LTE range. Two LTE devices have been announced for the network (not phones), and AT&T hopes to cover 15 cities by the end of 2011.

Technology: AT&T is currently using a standard called HSPA+ 21, which allows for theoretical maximum download speeds of up to 21Mbps, though actual rates are said to be around 1Mbps to 7Mbps. We do not yet know much about AT&T’s planned LTE roll-out later this year, but it is coming.

Devices (HSPA+): Motorola Atrix 4G, HTC Inspire 4G, Samsung Infuse 4G, HTC Sensation 4G, HP Veer 4G. (To find current listings, check AT&T’s 4G phones page.)

In mid July, AT&T announced its first 4G LTE-powered devices for consumers in the form of a USB modem for notebook computers and a Wi-Fi mobile hotspot. 

Coverage: AT&T’s coverage map is right here. Currently, only major cities have actual HSPA+ access. AT&T has announced 4G LTE service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The company plans to have LTE service up and running in at least 15 markets by the end of the 2011.

Sprint’s 4G network

Sprint Logo

Summary: Sprint went all in with WiMax, but now it seems to be having some buyer’s remorse. WiMax has required Sprint to work with Clearwire, which has purchased a chunk of 2.5GHz spectrum needed to run the network, but implementation has been slow. In February 2011, a Sprint executive claimed that the company is not shutting the door on LTE, especially since its current network could be upgraded to the new service. In June, rumors swirled that Sprint may sign a LTE deal with LightSquared to kickstart its service. 

Technology: Sprint 4G runs on WiMax in collaboration with Clearwire. It claims that users will get average download speeds around 3Mbps to 6Mbps and peak download speeds of more than 10Mbps. Check out our hands-on test of Clear’s WiMax service (the same network Sprint uses) in Portland, Oregon.

Devices: HTC EVO Shift 4G, HTC EVO 4G, Samsung Epic 4G, HTC Evo 3D, Motorola Photon 4G, Nexus S 4G. (To find current listings, check out Sprint’s 4G phones page.)

Coverage: Sprint’s coverage selector is right here. The service is still available in 76 major cities and the carrier claims there are 120 million people living in areas where its 4G is available.

T-Mobile’s 4G network?

T-Mobile Logo

Summary: T-Mobile has been aggressively rolling out HSPA+ upgrades to its networks. The carrier claims to have the “largest 4G network,” which may be true in overall geographical area covered, though we suspect AT&T will soon catch up with its HSPA+ enhanced network. T-Mobile executives claim that they plan to hold off on LTE upgrades until 2013.

Technology: T-Mobile 4G runs on a version of HSPA+ with theoretical download speeds up to 42Mbps. Realistically, most users will probably get somewhere around 1Mbps to 7Mbps. Check out our hands-on test of T-Mobile’s HSPA+ service in Portland.

Devices: T-Mobile G2x, T-Mobile myTouch 4G, T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide, Samsung Exhibit 4G, T-Mobile Sidekick 4G, HTC Sensation 4G, Samsung Galaxy S 4G. (To find current listings, check T-Mobile’s 4G phones page.)

Coverage: T-Mobile’s 4G coverage map is right here. The carrier claims more than 200 million people live in areas where T-Mobile 4G is already available; it is available in more than 191 markets.

Verizon Wireless’s 4G network?

Verizon Logo

Summary: Verizon’s 4G strategy may be the most advanced and forward-thinking of the bunch. The carrier has already launched its LTE network in the States and three 4G LTE phones are available on the market. Verizon also plans to upgrade the quality of its voice calls and video chat in the coming months.

Technology: Verizon believes its LTE network will retain speeds of 5Mbps to 12Mbps, even in congested areas and periods of high usage. We’ve experienced much faster speeds in our testing (20Mbps to 30Mbps), leading us to believe Verizon’s estimates are conservative. No matter which way you slice it, Verizon’s minimum LTE speeds currently outpace other 4G offerings.

Devices: HTC ThunderBoltSamsung Droid Charge, LG RevolutionMotorola Droid Bionic (coming soon). (To find current listings, check Verizon’s 4G devices page.)

Coverage: Verizon’s coverage map is right here. Currently, the service is available in more than 100 markets, 80 major airports, and is expanding quickly. Verizon expects to cover areas containing two thirds of the entire U.S. population by mid 2012, and have complete 4G coverage by the end of 2013.

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