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March 15, 2012

Will the Real 4G Smartphone Please Stand Up?

One-third of new smartphones sold are 4G, according to market research firm NPD. Some of those 4G phones, however, feature LTE technology, WiMax or HSPA+. So which one of these technologies is the real 4G?

Unfortunately, none of these high-bandwidth technologies are truly 4G. The real 4G technology promises 10 times the bandwidth of these networks, which some have called “4G Lite.”

Earlier this year, the U.N. and the International Telecommunications Union approved a list of specifications and requirements for high-speed mobile broadband service. The list is known as IMT-Advanced, for International Mobile Telecommunications.

LTE, WiMax nor HSPA+ meets the requirements for true 4G capabilities. Two other technologies, WirelessMAN-advanced and LTE-Advanced, refine existing software in the WiMax and LTE, respectively. Experts predict that IMT-Advanced will offer download speeds of 100 Mbits downstream even while the smartphone is on the move. For a stationary smartphone, the speed jumps to 1Gbit per second. This means that a 44-minute movie would take only 20 seconds to download.

The base stations that use IMT-Advanced will  also be able to support more concurrent users, thanks to new techniques for dynamically sharing network resources. With the new technology, phones will have global roaming capabilities with seamless transitions between base stations.

For mobile users who have had their data throttled or who have hit the caps in their data plan, IMT-Advanced promises to eliminate boundaries to data plans. Carriers will be able to offer innovative services like high-definition streaming or high-definition video conferencing, again over a moving connection.

The ITU is not responsible for the deployment of the technology; the body merely sets international standards that aren’t necessarily binding. Other large organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project and the WiMax Forum also have a voice.

With all of these organizations wrestling over the specifications of true 4G, experts predict that IMT-Advanced will not enter the marketplace for another couple of years.

So when customers purchase so-called 4G smartphones, they aren’t actually purchasing real 4G technology. NPD found that customers strongly associate 4G technology with LTE, which is good news for Verizon and AT&T. However, HSPA+ still delivers more bandwidth with less power consumption than LTE. Customers still have many good options from which to choose. But none of those options are the real 4G.

Edited by Braden Becker

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