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Nine things you need to know about 4G networks

by Howard Wolinsky

Imagine having a mobile phone that matches what you can do on your home PC or laptop. That’s the power of 4G - the term for fourth generation mobile service - which was rolled out by Sprint (S) earlier this year and will soon be available for Verizon (VZ) subscribers. Here are the most important things you need to know about 4G.

1. It’s fast. Sprint, the first mover in the 4G market, says its 4G is up to 10 times faster than 3G, which was introduced eight years ago. Sprint promises peak downloads of more than 10 Mbps (megabits per second), with average downloads of three to six Mbps. Verizon announced on October 6 that it plans in the fourth quarter to launch its 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network with downloads to range between 5 to 12 Mbps.

A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals that 4G speeds may vary. Sprint says that 4G can be 10 times faster than 3G. But read the fine print in Sprint’s promotional material: Sprint bases this claim on speed comparison between 3G’s low-end 600 kilobits per second (Kbps) vs. 4G’s max 6Mbps. Sprint notes that 3G can reach 1.7 Mbps, while 4G may drop down to 3 Mbps. So that’s less than twice as fast. We will know more specifics about Verizon’s network in the weeks ahead as it rolls out its service.

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2. Regardless of how much faster 4G might be, the increased connection speed lets you do more things with your phone. Early users are already enjoying features like uninterrupted video conferencing, high-definition television streaming and of course lightning fast web surfing that smartphones on 3G networks are unable to provide. Power business users and other early adopters of the new technology who experience 4G will never want to go back.

3. Casual users mostly interested in talking, texting and occasional web surfing on their cell phones don’t need to rush into buying a 4G-enabled phone (and it is not possible to upgrade existing 3G models to the new network.) Even if you are ready to buy a phone and wanted to upgrade to 4G, the network is not available in all parts of the country (see below). It will take years for 4G to roll out into every rural area, and residents of big cities could get shut out due to big restrictions on new cell phone towers.

4. You can easily find out if 4G is available in your area. Sprint says its 4G network reaches more than 268 million people in 50 markets in the United States “and counting.” To see whether 4G is available in your hometown, go here.

Verizon says its 4G LTE network initially will cover 100 million people in 38 markets by the end of 2010. The first markets with access to Verizon’s 4G network include Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Below is a full coverage map for Verizon's 4G Network:

Current and would-be iPhone owners dissatisfied with AT&T's (T) network would of course love the rumors of an upcoming Verizon iPhone to be true.

5. 4G is more expensive. Sprint currently charges its customers with 4G-enabled devices an extra $10 per month, regardless of whether they can access a 4G network or not. With increased data usage and Verizon entering the fray, both networks are rumored to convert to “pay-as-you-go” pricing schemes rather than unlimited use packages. 4G devices will also invariably cost more - at least at first - than similar phones on the same networks.

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Back in May, Sprint launched its first 4G phone, HTC EVO 4G, selling for $200 with a two-year contract. That phone runs on Google’s Android mobile operating system, and has access to nearly 100,000 Android apps. Verizon has not announced pricing and plan information for  upcoming 4G-enabled smartphones.

6. Batteries take a hit on 4G. Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G can run out of battery power after only a few hours of use. While power can be conserved by switching off the 4G setting, the last thing you want to do with your new state-of-the-art smartphone is to slow it down. Extra battery packets which add to the weight of an already heavy phone can be purchased for about $100.

7. A 4G mobile hotspot can give a boost to your 3G phone. Sprint’s website displays a video showing how an iPhone user can find its 4G network and increase the iPhone’s speed. Take that AT&T. Sprint says the hotspot can work with up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices at time: a phone, a laptop, camera, a couple music players and so on. Sprint says the Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless is the first dual-mode mobile hotspot on the market.

8. Sprint and Verizon are leading the way with 4G, but where’s the competition? They’re not snoozing. Kent German reported in CNET that AT&T will be busting a move into 4G next year.  AT&T Operations CEO John Stankey says the company will light up its network with LTE service by the middle of 2011. He didn’t list cities, but he says AT&T is aiming to cover between 70 million and 75 million people by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile T-Mobile has been touting its HPSA+ upgrade. T-Mobile says the upgrade increases its network’s speed three to five times over 3G. T-Mobile describes its HSPA+ enhancement as a “super-fast mobile broadband network that delivers 4G speeds in the Northeastern U.S. and other major cities across the country.”

9. So if you are one of those people with a need for speed or rely on your phone for multimedia business communication, it makes sense to upgrade to a 4G phone right away. Just understand the geographic restrictions in accessing the network, and be prepared to pay more in your monthly bill while also making sure to charge your phone more regularly.

For everyone else, there is no need to rush into 4G. Whenever it is naturally time to upgrade your phone due to performance or an expiring contract, you should consider jumping on to the faster network. By that time, 4G will be available in more areas and on more carriers. Although I wouldn’t expect prices to go down, battery and other technical issues associated with new gadgets should be resolved.

The only other thing you’ll have to worry about at that point is when it makes sense to upgrade to the fifth generation of cell phone technology.

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