What is 4G?

By now, you have seen the blogs, read the tweets and perhaps watched a YouTube video about “4G” mobile networks. In these postings, various claims and counterclaims have been made for what really defines 4G wireless. Further down in the industry dialogue, debate has been swirling among the ITU, IEEE 802 and various telecom analysts and pundits about what constitutes 4G. The technical acronyms LTE, WiMAX, HSPA+ and perhaps others have floated through the ether, creating more confusion than clarity.

All this happened when ITU let the genie out of the bottle in late 2010 and loosened the technical definition of what is truly 4G. The answer had been mobile technology capable of 100 Mbps+ downloads. However, ITU seems to have given mobile operators and others with vested interests enough leeway to define 4G as any mobile broadband technology that is faster than “3G,” which enjoyed a similar hype and uncertainty when it debuted in the early 2000s. And so began the public’s conditioning to equate more Gs with faster throughput.

Of course, all these Gs only refer to the generation of mobile technology, currently in its third generation in most places, with some limited availability of fourth generation technology. For the record, 4G technology in ITU’s strictest sense only refers to Long Term Evolution (LTE) Advanced and WiMAX 802.16m. Even current LTE and WiMAX 16e installations do not qualify. They are evolutionary steps on the road to 4G. And though HSPA+ is a fast download technology, it is still a third generation mobile telecom technology. Still, some HSPA+ carriers are achieving 21 Mbps downloads—faster than the 12 Mbps of early LTE carriers. With a software upgrade by the end of 2011, HSPA+ carriers can conceivably get up to 42 Mbps—but that is the theoretical maximum. Someday, LTE operators could hypothetically top out at 300 Mbps, but that day is not in the immediate future.

What is immediately apparent and most important is what 4G means to the end user. Most people cannot be bothered to dive into the technical details of mobile broadband technology, even if they are capable of grasping its intricacies. What they can grasp is faster mobile video loads with a minimum of latency and lack of jitter. What they can get is the mobile Internet displaying web pages with images in place and not red Xs or empty pictureholders. What is important is delivering content to the end user—wherever she is—faster than she expects, however many Gs it takes….


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