As America prepares to enter the “4G” wireless era this Friday, a barrage of advertising for the technology looks inevitable. While companies promise faster speeds and the thrill of being the first on the block to use a new acronym, there’s less to 4G than meets the eye, and there’s little reason to scramble for it right away.
Broadly speaking, 4G is a new way to use the airwaves, designed from the start for the transmission of data rather than phone calls. For consumers, 4G means, in the ideal case, faster access to data. For instance, streaming video might work better, with less stuttering and higher resolution. Videoconferencing is difficult on 3G and might work better on 4G. Multiplayer video games may benefit too.
Other than that, it’s difficult to point to completely new uses for 4G phones — things they can do that 3G phones can’t. Instead, the upgrade to 4G is more likely to enhance the things you can already do with 3G, said Matt Carter, president of Sprint’s 4G division.
So the improvement from 3G to 4G is not as dramatic as the step from 2G to 3G, which for the first time made real Web browsing, video and music downloads practical on phones.
There’s an important caveat to the claim that 4G will be faster, as well. It will definitely be faster than the 3G networks of Sprint and Verizon Wireless in the US — about four times faster, initially. But the other two US carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, are upgrading their 3G networks to offer data-transfer speeds that will actually be higher than the speeds 4G networks will reach this year or next. That means that rather than focusing on real speeds, Sprint and Verizon will try to frame their marketing around the “4G” term, said Dan Hays, who focuses on telecom at management consultancy PRTM. “It’s a terrible story from a consumer standpoint, because it’s tremendously confusing.”
But there’s a subtle benefit to “4G”: it takes less time to initiate the flow of data. What that means is that 4G is faster for quick back-and-forth communications. You wouldn’t notice this when surfing the Web or doing e-mail: but it could mean that 4G will work better for multiplayer gaming and even phone calls.