If you’ve been holding on to the same cell phone you’ve had for years, count yourself lucky in some respects. While you may be able to take advantage of innovations like geolocation tools (maps, finding restaurants, etc.), surfing the Internet wherever and whenever you’d like or watching Netflix movies at a moment’s notice, you have one less thing to worry about: Fourth generation – commonly called “4G” – mobile networks.
Why is 4G such a contentious topic in the tech sector? Partially because mobile carriers have promised far more than they have delivered. And partially because of the shifting (and confusing) technologies underlying 4G networks.
What I Googled: will +samsung +”galaxy s2″ +epic +4g +touch +work +Sprint +LTE
Why I Googled it: My wife and I recently upgraded our aging HTC Hero phones for the new Samsung Galaxy S II Epic Touch 4G, a gorgeous Android phone with a huge display, fast dual-core processor, 8 MP camera, and, best of all, designed to run on Sprint’s 4G network. Sprint’s current 4G network is referred to as “WIMAX” (more on that in a minute) and offers much faster speeds than the older 3G network. I recently learned that Sprint has stopped expanding the WIMAX network and has instead switched to deploying a LTE 4G network nationwide. Concerned that my phone would be obsolete before I broke it in, I turned to the net to learn more.
What I found out: Third generation – 3G – networks and 4G networks are very different. While 3G is much faster than its predecessor, 4G has speeds up to 10 times faster. It’s the difference between waiting 30-60 seconds for a webpage to load on 3G and waiting 2-3 seconds on 4G. Obviously, streaming video from YouTube or Netflix is enjoyable on 4G speeds while it can be infuriating on 3G.
But every carrier employs slightly different technology as the basis of its 4G network. Sprint decided to use WIMAX a few years back and began building out that network. Unfortunately, they didn’t get very far. In the Washington, DC area, 4G is fairly reliable and has fairly consistent coverage. In other markets, it’s not as dependable or not available at all. Recently, Sprint made the decision to switch to LTE instead of WIMAX due to a variety of technical reasons I won’t go into here.
From what I can tell, as Sprint turns its attention to building out its LTE network, it will divert resources from developing the WIMAX network. However, the LTE roll-out will take quite some time and has only barely begun in just a couple of markets. Meanwhile, Sprint will continue to support the WIMAX network.
So what’s the big deal? Basically, WIMAX and LTE use two different frequencies that require a compatible radio inside a mobile phone to connect to it. The Samsung Galaxy S II has the WIMAX radio, but not the LTE radio. The newly announced Galaxy Nexus on Sprint will have LTE, but not WIMAX.
Without going into too many details, here’s what all of the above means:
- Those living in an area that was promised WIMAX likely won’t get it. Better for these folks to avoid getting a WIMAX phone since they will never be able to take advantage of the 4G speeds promised by the device manufacturer.
- Those living in an area that already has WIMAX will be safe upgrading to a WIMAX phone now (like the one I got) since Sprint will reportedly support WIMAX at least until 2015. As long as they don’t plan to move to a location that doesn’t have WIMAX, don’t travel much, or don’t care that they won’t have 4G speeds when they travel, they should be fine. These folks will be able to use their phones for the lifetime of their contract (2 years), though they’ll be forced to upgrade at the end of their contract (something many already do) to continue using a 4G network.
- Those who are in area that is slated to get Sprint’s new LTE 4G network should wait to upgrade until that build-out is confirmed and stable.
While I’ve been a faithful Sprint customer for years, I increasingly find it difficult to recommend it to others looking to switch from AT&T or Verizon. I realize the choice to invest in a network technology cannot be easy, but I would have hoped Sprint would stand behind their commitment to WIMAX instead of confusing their customers and, for some, cheating them out of promised 4G network speeds.