Who's the fastest wireless carrier in town? If you've seen any of their ads, you know it's Verizon, unless it's AT&T or T-Mobile or Sprint.
The major carriers are all vying for your business by claiming to be faster than a speeding rocket (really, Verizon says that) or so fast you'll never be embarrassed again (thanks, AT&T). And now they're starting to tout something called 4G. If you're like most cell phone customers, you probably know that 4G is faster than 3G, and that's the extent of your knowledge.
Well, don't feel like a dunce. Your confusion is understandable. The wireless companies are acting like scared squids, spraying clouds of ink in the face of consumers, hoping you'll simply buy their products without asking too many questions. The biggest squid in the 4G ocean so far is Verizon Wireless, which sells a flavor of 4G it calls LTE, for long-term evolution.
To help clear the waters, I spoke with Bill Moore, the CEO of Seattle-based RootMetrics, which conducts painstaking tests of wireless networks and phones. Root Metrics has released a series of reports that cover 11 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States.
The overall conclusion of the testing is that the Verizon Wireless LTE service is the fastest wireless service you can buy in the areas they looked at. The tests covered the four major wireless carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. Overall, says Moore, Verizon LTE download speeds are on average two times to four times faster than its competitors, while upload speeds are anywhere from three times to 10 times faster.
Sure, that sounds great. But there are a number of caveats, or to use the technical term, gotchas.
- LTE is not available everywhere. Verizon says it offers the service in 100 markets around the country. (Here's a page that shows areas it covers and a tool to see if it is available at your address.) Although LTE may be available in your market, that doesn't mean it is available in the parts of the market where you live, work or travel.
- Very few smartphones are actually compatible with Verizon LTE -- in fact only three are: Samsung's Charge, the LG Revolution and the HTC Thunderbolt. Note that the iPhone is not among that group. At some point, it probably will be, but Apple isn't saying, and it may be some time.
- Verizon no longer offers unlimited data plans to new customers. The cheapest combined voice and data plan is $90 a month, which will get you 450 minutes of talk time, unlimited texts and 2GB of data.
- LTE service is a battery hog. Your lightning fast downloads will force you to charge your phone more frequently, says Moore.
Why Consumers Are Confused About 4G
One reason it's so hard to make an informed choice about which cell phone carrier to choose is the confusion about what actually constitutes 4G. A year ago, the ITU, or International Telecommunications Union, a body that sets standards, defined 4G as a technology that enabled download speeds of 100 megabits per second. After the carriers complained, they lowered the standard to about half of that.
You'll also hear carriers talking about technologies called HSPDA and HSPDA+ which aren't 4G, but are faster than 3G. It's so confusing that a recent survey of users by a company called Retrevo found that as many as one-third of all iPhone owners thought they already had 4G service, which they don't, of course. Blackberry phones aren't 4G-compatible either, but a quarter of their owners also think they have 4G.
None of that would matter very much if consumers could rely on the carriers to publish accurate statistics on how fast their service really is. But they don't. It's not that they're lying, but the tests they base their claims on are conducted under ideal conditions that do not replicate the experience of an actual user, says Moore.
To begin with, those tests are generally conducted outdoors where there's less interference of the kind you'd experience at home or at the office. And when they measure the speed of downloads and uploads, they aren't using a phone at the downstream end, but a bundle of circuits, he says.
That's why you'll notice that carrier ads and contracts always say that connections are "up to" such and such a speed. That's also the case with wired DSL and cable technologies; consumers almost never enjoy the advertised theoretical speed.
By contrast, Root Metrics performs between 4,000 and 5,000 indoor and outdoor tests (some automated) in a metro area with off-the-shelf phones, measuring both data and voice quality, says Moore.
My advice: Don't jump on the 4G bandwagon just yet. Wait and see what experiences your friends and co-workers have in areas where you'll want to use your new phone. And stay tuned for more confusing ads when AT&T launches its version of 4G later this summer.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline