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

Police surveillance of U.S. citizens' cell phone data has skyrocketed
Update: Refreshed article for 2017 to reflect that 4G is now commonplace and 5G is on the way. 

The fourth generation of cellular technology, or 4G, has been around for some time now — in fact, we’re now hearing a lot about the initial stages of 5G. Despite that, however, 4G is likely to remain a major part of how you access the internet from your smartphone for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, sometimes technologies like this — with their dozens of associated buzzwords — can be a little difficult to understand. 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 what all this means for the future of wireless.

The basics of 4G

What is 4G?

Don’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 in the early 2000s. When you browse the web in some rural areas and when 4G isn’t available, you’ll be on 3G. 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. That changed with 4G networks, which offer download speeds comparable to, if not faster than, the broadband internet you get on your laptop at home — all over the airwaves.

At launch, 4G networks offered speeds of around 1Mbps to 12Mbps, which was pretty fast for the time. Now, however, speeds are hitting closer to 100Mbps, while some 4G networks are even boasting speeds of a whopping 1Gbps, or 1,000Mbps. That’s probably a whole lot faster than even your home Wi-Fi network. If you want to know the speed of your Wi-Fi network, you can test it here.

Do I have a 4G-capable phone?

You most likely have a 4G-capable phone, if you bought it within the past 5 years or so. Even budget phones these days support 4G, and while they may not offer modems that reach massive 1Gbps speeds, they should still offer much faster speeds than anything you experienced on 3G or before that.

Does my wireless carrier offer 4G?

All four major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile — offer super fast 4G speeds, but actual speeds vary widely both depending on the carrier and depending on your connection. On top of those four carriers, most smaller carriers offer 4G connections of their own, including MNVOs that piggyback on the networks of the “big four.” The big networks are also spending billions of dollars to both improve their 4G networks, and to begin offering 5G.

Check out our guides for the major four carriers’ family plans here.

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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