What Is 4G and Does It Matter?

The first phone in the country to use the faster 4G wireless network -- HTC's Evo -- goes on sale Friday. It will run on Sprint's network and is being touted as giving users the ability to "upload, download and scour the web up to 10x faster than ever before." The new standard may offer faster speeds, but they're meaningless without the right infrastructure.

What exactly is 4G? It stands for fourth-generation wireless network, but unfortunately there is no official definition. 3G phones manage voice and data separately, while 4G phones handle both using the same Internet protocol, which means it will be able to offer greater capacity. In other words, there's more bandwidth -- a bigger pipeline -- to let more data through. And the time it takes to open a transfer is reduced, as the AP explains:

You wouldn't notice this when surfing the Web or doing e-mail: We're talking delays of 0.03 second rather than 0.15 second. But it could mean that 4G will work better for multiplayer gaming, where split-second timing is important. Even phone calls could benefit from shorter audio delays.

The new standard is expected to be significantly faster than 3G, but there is a catch. Transfers between phones and cell towers could be fast, but they could be throttled by slow connections at the towers themselves, Public Knowledge's Michael Weinberg points out:

The dirty secret of the cell phone industry is that most of the towers aren't connected to some fancy high-speed broadband line.  Instead, all too often the towers have a measly T1 line to share between everyone connected to the tower.  You could give carriers all of the spectrum under the sun, pairing it with some sort of mystical 8G technology, and it wouldn't matter.  There would still be a bottleneck between the tower and the wider Internet holding everyone up.  In fact, this bottleneck is the focus of the NoChokePoints coalition, of which Public Knowledge is a member.

Of course, companies can and are building out that infrastructure, but it's going to be a slow process. More and more phones will support 4G, like the forthcoming iPhone, but only in addition to 3G. "Rather than a sudden revolution," the AP reports, "consumers are likely to experience a gradual transition to the new technology, with increasing speeds."

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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