4G is the latest set of standards for cellular wireless devices. But as with other technologies and standards, there are a lot of rumors, speculations and wishful thinking coming out about what 4G really is - and what it's capable of. Here we look beyond the marketing hype.

What Is 4G really?

4G is simply the fourth generation of cellular wireless standards (3G, in general, is where most of us are now). More accurately, however, 4G is really an extension, not an update, of the 3G standards. For the regular consumer, it means significantly faster speeds on their 4G-enabled mobile phones.

There are several misconceptions about what 4G brings to the average consumer. At the moment, the technology and the platforms we are seeing are not necessarily 4G but more of something in between: better than the accepted 3G standards but not quite what 4G promises it will bring.

This has only served to increase the confusion surrounding 4G, as more and more companies are claiming that they now use 4G when, in fact, they do not.

Mobile Marketing and 4G

4G is technically something that has not yet seen the light of day, at least as far as mobile users and consumers are concerned. What mobile operators and mobile phone manufacturers are calling 4G now is actually late-stage 3G, more aptly called 3.XG, which more or less conforms to 3G standards rather than 4G standards.

HSPA+, an upgrade to High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), is one of the more widely used standard today. It has the potential to deliver speeds of up to 168 MBps. Even so, HSPA+ is actually just 3G.

Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMAX are also erroneously being called 4G. These all present some improvements over earlier 3G systems, but they are not 4G.

The first real 4G technologies that were accepted by the International Telecommunication Union as 4G are:
ITU made the announcement in October 2010 that these are the only true 4G technologies. Nevertheless, many telecoms in the U.S. are currently advertising 3G technologies - such as HSPA+, LTE and WiMAX - as 4G. No wonder consumers are confused!

LTE Advanced and WiMAX 2: Features and Speed

LTE Advanced, at least on paper, is a huge improvement over the wireless network capacity and speeds we're experiencing today. Just take note of the download speeds achievable with LTE Advanced: 1 GB. That's a long way from HSPA+, which offers only 28 MB, and LTE's 100 MB.

LTE Advanced is also three times more efficient than LTE when it comes to peak spectrum. It supports scalable bandwidth use as well as spectrum aggregation. In short, LTE Advanced adapts to network load, and can allocate resources when the network gets busy.

The Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) Release 2 is another 4G standard that is waiting in the wings.

Release 2.0 is expected to deliver speeds of up to 1 GB and successfully handle more than 300 MBps of throughput.

Aside from these marked improvements over the first WiMAX, Release 2.0 also offers:
  • Legacy support, so that your WiMAX device will work on older networks while your older phones will work on WiMAX networks.
  • The ability to support different quality of service levels for different types of services.
  • Support for scalable bandwidths ranging from 5 megahertz to 40 megahertz.
While the average mobile user would not really care about anything more than advertised speeds, speed is not the only advantage LTE Advanced and WiMAX Release 2.0 provide. On top of being able to reach download speeds of 1 GBps, WiMAX Release 2.0 also reduces concerns about bandwidth usage caps, capacity problems and network congestion issues.

Is it time to buy a 4G phone?

One caveat about 4G: even if AT&T, Verizon and other mobile companies do get the chance to upgrade their networks to use LTE Advanced or WiMAX Release 2.0, it does not mean that users will automatically get better download speeds. Your phone has to be 4G as well.

With all the advantages, the next question is: should you buy a 4G phone now?

The short answer is that if you are content with the speeds you are getting now on an HSPA+, LTE or WiMAX network, there's no reason to shell out for this new technology. LTE and WiMax both claim to have speeds similar to a home cable connection at 5 MBps or more.

When can we see real 4G?

The good news is that LTE and WiMAX networks can easily upgrade to LTE Advance and WiMAX 2.0 when it does become available. But HSPA+ networks might have some problems. So if you are looking to enjoy a 1 GBps speed in the future, take a look at which providers, such as Sprint (WiMAX) and Verizon (LTE), have LTE and WiMAX networks.

Do not hold your breath, however. WiMAX 2 has suffered a lot of delays; its initial estimated rollout time was 2010 and has since been pushed to 2012. As of March 2011, LTE Advanced has already been finalized, but there has not been a single roll out for WiMAX 2 or LTE Advanced. What's more, mobile operators right now are still upgrading their networks to HSPA+, LTE and WiMAX. This means that it might take time for them to upgrade to true 4G.

On top of that, at time of writing, not a single manufacturer has announced LTE Advanced or WiMAX 2.0 capabilities. In fact, at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, most of the new phones launched only had LTE capability.

The bottom line: If you want to play with 4G you're going to have to wait.

Getting Ready for 4G

Mobile Internet speeds are getting faster as newer technologies are introduced. If you are a mobile user, you would benefit from the new technology coming out not just in terms of having faster speeds, but also better network coverage and performance. Once 4G really hits the market, it may take years before it takes hold. That said, there are things that you could do now to be ready for it.

For one, know that HSPA+ is not going to be easily upgraded to real 4G standards, and stop being wowed by mobile operators' claims that HSPA+ is the wave of the future. Instead, sign up with an operator that is geared toward 4G, especially if you have a plan with a long lock-down period.