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4G shootout: Verizon LTE vs. Sprint WiMax

We compare 4G network availability, plans, prices and speeds — especially speeds

February 3, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Last month, I pitted Sprint's WiMax-based fourth-generation (4G) network against its third-generation (3G) network in a series of real-world tests around the New York metropolitan area. My goal was to find out whether the speed boost you'll get is worth the hassle and expense of upgrading from 3G to 4G.

My conclusion? Absolutely — if it's available in your area.

Now that Verizon's competing LTE-based 4G network has been rolled out in my area, I returned to all the same locations and repeated my tests (see "How I tested") for a showdown between Verizon's and Sprint's 4G services. Let's see how they stack up.

The networks

Verizon's 4G service is based on LTE (long-term evolution) wireless technology, which has its roots in GSM (global system for mobile communications) and UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) cellular systems. It uses the 700MHz band of the radio frequency spectrum and has a theoretical peak speed of over 100Mbit/sec.

Sprint's 4G service, on the other hand, makes use of WiMax (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) wireless technology, which is based on the IEEE 802.16e specification. Sprint WiMax operates on the 2.5GHz band, and its theoretical peak download speed is 128Mbit/sec.

(Just what is and isn't a 4G service, anyway? See "The 4G name game.")

As we'll see later in this story, real-world speeds for both services are much, much lower than the theoretical ones, but still significantly faster than the companies' older 3G services.

Both 4G services depend on their providers building out nationwide networks with billions of dollars' worth of new equipment. Sprint has a head start; its partner Clearwire has been rolling out its WiMax network for a couple of years now. The service, known in the U.S. as Clear, is currently available in 62 cities, from Everett, Wash., to Tampa, Fla. Coverage is more complete on the coasts and sparser in the middle of the country; there are 12 states with no Sprint 4G service at all.

Verizon, which just launched its LTE service in December, has wired up 38 major U.S. cities, from Los Angeles to New York, as well as 60 airports for 4G LTE access. Twenty-four states currently have no Verizon 4G service. The company plans to build out the network over the next two years to cover its current 3G footprint. That means Verizon will likely provide lots of 4G access on the two coasts, the south and the midwest, but it will be sparse in the northwest.

Neither company's 4G network extends outside the United States at present.

Meanwhile, competitors AT&T and T-Mobile are taking the easier — and less expensive — route for now by upgrading existing equipment to evolved high-speed packet access (HSPA+) technology — although AT&T has also announced plans to roll out an LTE network over the next few years. (Next: Getting connected)

The 4G name game

Can changing the name of a network make it run faster? That's the question before T-Mobile and AT&T, which in 2010 upgraded their 3G wireless networks with HSPA+ technology to make them deliver data faster — and then started advertising them as 4G networks.

Sprint and Verizon objected, saying that only WiMax and LTE qualify as 4G technologies. Both are Internet Protocol-based networks that make use of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing access (OFDMA) technology and are built especially for data traffic, while HSPA+ improves networks originally built for voice traffic.

But T-Mobile and AT&T say it's all about speed, arguing that their HSPA+ networks deliver average download speeds of 5 to 6 Mbit/sec. — more or less what Sprint and Verizon promise for their WiMax and LTE networks — and therefore qualify as 4G.

The arbiter of all this, the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has only added to the confusion. The group originally defined 4G technologies as being capable of delivering over 100Mbit/sec. of throughput. The ITU declared in October that only LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced, a.k.a. WiMax 2, technologies — which likely won't be deployed commercially until 2014 or 2015 — qualified as 4G.

In other words, none of the currently available networks deserve the 4G moniker.

In December, however, the ITU changed its criteria, defining 4Gness as nothing more than a substantial improvement over 3G technologies. By that yardstick, AT&T's and T-Mobile's HSPA+ networks could legitimately be called 4G.

I think the distinction between "enhanced 3G" and "4G" networks (those built from the ground up for carrying data) makes sense and should stand. In my book, WiMax and LTE are 4G technologies; HSPA+ isn't. But that won't stop carriers — or consumers — from applying the term as they like.

— Brian Nadel

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