Just when 3G networks became ubiquitous, 4G arrived on the scene, promising lightning speed, and adding yet another layer of complication to the cell phone buying process. Each of the four major U.S. carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have some form of 4G plan in place, all very different. (Note that though AT&T recently announced plans to acquire T-Mobile, that will take at least a year to go through, and won’t affect either carrier’s offerings as yet.) There are three types of 4G recognized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU): LTE (Long Term Evolution), WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access). It’s likely that all four major carriers will eventually utilize LTE, which is said to be the fastest, but for now, here’s what the carriers have on offer.
Sprint’s 4G network is the most developed of the big four. Using WiMax technology, Sprint launched its 4G network in September 2008 — well ahead of the competition — in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s currently in over 70 markets, concentrated on the East and West coast as well as Texas. There’s very little coverage in the Midwest and Southwest, so you’re out of luck if you live in Arizona or Kansas, for example. Despite its large WiMax network, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, has said that the company may consider switching to LTE in the future. Sprint has several 4G smartphones on the market.
In December of last year, Verizon launched its LTE network, which can now be found in 39 markets. Verizon’s 4G network covers mostly the East coast, Ohio and Michigan, a few spots on the West coast and Texas. The carrier plans to blanket the country by 2013. Its first 4G-capable phones are starting to trickle out, starting with the HTC Thunderbolt.
T-Mobile, has been steadily building an HSPA+ network. While HSPA+ is recognized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as a 4G network, it’s generally described as a 3.5G network since it’s not as fast as 4G and is basically a bridge between 3G and 4G. One benefit is that it’s backwards compatible, so consumers don’t have to buy a new phone to access the new network, though a few 4G smartphones are now available. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network launched in June of last year and is currently in 100 metro areas. Like Verizon and Sprint, it is highly concentrated in the East coast with scattered coverage throughout the Midwest and some coverage on West coast. The carrier has announced plans to upgrade to LTE at some point, but not in the near future.
Finally, in early 2011 AT&T launched its own HSPA+ network in 10 cities, and has announced plans to deliver LTE by mid-year. Its HSPA+ network is primarily on the East and West coasts and some of the South, with virtually no coverage in the middle of the country. The carrier has a few 4G smartphones, including the Motorola Atrix 4G, though speeds are disappointing, and more comparable to 3G.
4G is something to consider when looking for the best cell phone plan, but it may not yet be in your area. If you live on the East coast, West coast or in Texas, it’s likely you have access to 4G from a few different carriers already. On the other hand, if you reside in the middle of the country or the Southwest, those areas are mostly absent of 4G coverage and you will likely have to wait a year or so until it becomes available.