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

If you’ve seen or heard an ad about a cell phone or wireless plan lately, you may have noticed that a lot of new buzzwords are being thrown around. Words like 4G, LTE, and WiMax seem to have replaced the last set of words we barely understood: 3G, GSM, and CDMA. But what does it all mean? Is it all a bunch of marketing nonsense or are these words you should know and understand? We’ve got the scoop in our official mobile broadband FAQ.

Read on to learn what 4G is, why you should want it, and which carriers and devices are already pushing forward into the next generation of mobile data where your phone’s Internet may actually run faster than your home Wi-Fi.

The basics of 4G

What is 4G?

4g-hspa-lte-graphDon’t let this surprisingly intuitive naming scheme spin you around: 4G simply means “fourth generation.” It’s the next step up in mobile Internet speed from 3G, which is a term you started hearing a few years back. 3G is what you use if you browse the Web on your smartphone right now. It uses the networks built by wireless carriers and transfers data over them at speeds up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps), making it possible to load a website and stream videos… just not very fast. 4G networks will change that, offering download speeds comparable, if not faster than, the broadband Internet you get on your laptop at home — all over the airwaves.

4G networks will eventually reach speeds of up to 100Mbps, but at launch they’ll likely offer actual speeds around 1Mbps to 12Mbps, which puts them about on par with Wi-Fi 802.11b networks. For example, my current cable Internet download speed at 5 p.m. in Chicago, IL is about 6Mbps. Your Internet speed is probably no greater than 15Mbps on a good day. Want to know your connection speed? Test it.

Do I have a 4G-capable phone?

Probably not, unless you just bought it recently. Wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers are using the word 4G like it’s the holy grail, so even if your phone blatantly says it’s 4G, it may just be marketing lingo. Most 4G phones are smartphones, so if you have an older flip phone, you’re out of luck.

Does my wireless carrier offer 4G?

All four major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile — are offering services they call “4G,” but their actual speeds and availability vary wildly. For the most part, 4G access on most carriers is limited to a handful of major cities around the United States, but coverage is expanding fast. To attain 4G speeds, carriers are spending billions of dollars to upgrade (or replace) their wireless networks. In our 4G carrier breakdown below, we’ll go into specifics on each carrier’s current 4G status and compatible handsets.

What is the ITU?

The ITU, or International Telecommunications Union, is an agency of the United Nations that sets telecommunication standards for the world. The ITU coined the terms 3G and 4G and establishes which technologies meet the requirements to qualify for the labels. Initially, the ITU claimed that HSPA+ technology didn’t qualify as 4G, but reversed its decision in December 2010.

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