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Tech Report – 4G is here, but do we really need it?

By Paul O'Reilly

In the coming weeks we are going to see lots of TV ads and Internet chatter about "4G", the next generation wireless networking technology that will further complicate the choices in an already confusing mobile technology world.

Sprint Nextel will be first up with its 4G phone, the EVO, scheduled for release on June 4. Verizon will be next, with 4G networks available in 25 to 30 cities this Fall, and others are expected to follow suit sometime next year.

But what is 4G and how much of a difference will it make? Can we expect the same kind of quantum leap that we got with the move from 2G to 3G, when smartphones and other devices suddenly became viable platforms for web browsing, video streaming and tens of thousands of data-hungry apps?

In simple terms, 4G is a more efficient way of using the existing spectrum of radio waves, resulting in faster data transmission speeds and purer connections. Experts have likened the difference between 3G and 4G to standard television and HDTV: the earlier generation technology will still get the job done, but, once you experience the upgrade, it will be hard to go back.

Others dispute the notion that 4G will make that much of a difference. They argue that 4G networks won't allow smartphones to do anything that they can't already do, and that the carriers would be better off upgrading existing 3G networks rather than investing in a whole new technology.

In fact, that's exactly what some of the other major carriers are doing. AT&T, which has long been teetering under the data congestion caused by millions of iPhone users, has made relief of that congestion on its existing 3G network the #1 priority. Its 3G upgrades are likely to continue for some time, well past this summer's introduction of Apple's fourth-generation iPhone (which, to avoid adding to the confusion, is unlikely to be called the iPhone 4G!)

Also, both AT&T and T-Mobile still have a lot of work to do in making sure their 3G networks are available in rural, less-populated areas.

Meanwhile, some industry observers expect the upgraded 3G networks to offer data transfer speeds that will actually be higher than the 4G networks will reach this year or next.

Ultimately, all the major carriers will implement some form of 4G network, enabling faster download speeds and better quality connections. Until then, consumers can probably relax and resist the urge to once again upgrade to the latest possible technology. This time around, sticking with a favorite network – and the devices that run well on it – are much more important.         

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