4G shootout: Verizon LTE vs. Sprint WiMax

Last month, I pitted Sprint's WiMax-based fourth-generation (4G) network against its third-generation (3G) network in a series of real-world tests around the New York metropolitan area. My goal was to find out whether the speed boost you'll get is worth the hassle and expense of upgrading from 3G to 4G.

My conclusion? Absolutely - if it's available in your area.

Now that Verizon's competing LTE-based 4G network has been rolled out in my area, I returned to all the same locations and repeated my tests (see "How I tested") for a showdown between Verizon's and Sprint's 4G services. Let's see how they stack up.

The Networks

Verizon's 4G service is based on LTE (long-term evolution) wireless technology, which has its roots in GSM (global system for mobile communications) and UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) cellular systems. It uses the 700MHz band of the radio frequency spectrum and has a theoretical peak speed of over 100Mbit/sec.

Sprint's 4G service, on the other hand, makes use of WiMax (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) wireless technology, which is based on theIEEE 802.16e specification. Sprint WiMax operates on the 2.5GHz band, and its theoretical peak download speed is 128Mbit/sec.

(Just what is and isn't a 4G service, anyway? See"The 4G name game.")

As we'll see later in this story, real-world speeds for both services are much, much lower than the theoretical ones, but still significantly faster than the companies' older 3G services.

Both 4G services depend on their providers building out nationwide networks with billions of dollars' worth of new equipment. Sprint has a head start; its partner Clearwire has been rolling out its WiMax network for a couple of years now. The service, known in the U.S. as Clear, is currently available in 62 cities, from Everett, Wash., to Tampa, Fla. Coverage is more complete on the coasts and sparser in the middle of the country; there are 12 states with no Sprint 4G service at all.

Verizon, which just launched its LTE service in December, has wired up 38 major U.S. cities, from Los Angeles to New York, as well as 60 airports for 4G LTE access. Twenty-four states currently have no Verizon 4G service. The company plans to build out the network over the next two years to cover its current 3G footprint. That means Verizon will likely provide lots of 4G access on the two coasts, the south and the midwest, but it will be sparse in the northwest.

Neither company offers 4G service outside the United States at present.

Meanwhile, competitors AT&T and T-Mobile are taking the easier - and less expensive - route for now by upgrading existing equipment to evolved high-speed packet access (HSPA+) technology - although AT&T has also announced plans to roll out an LTE network over the next few years. (Next: Getting connected)

Getting Connected

To connect to a 4G network, you'll need either a 4G-capable phone or tablet or a 4G modem for your laptop. For testing the Clear WiMax service, I used aSierra Wireless AirCard 250U modem, which plugs into a laptop's USB slot. You'll find more details about it in my earlier story, but its high points include its small size and ability to swivel for better reception.

To get onto Verizon's 4G network, I used another USB modem - the LG VL600, which works withWindows 7, Vista and XP machines. (Verizon also offers a smaller Pantech modem, and several LTE-capable smartphones are coming soon.)

LG VL600 4G USB Modem
At 1.8 oz. and 3.9 x 1.5 x 0.6 in., the long and narrow VL600 is a tenth of an ounce lighter but much larger than Sprint's 2-inch round Sierra Wireless AirCard, and it sticks out an annoying 3 inches from a laptop.

On the plus side, the VL600 has a handy fold-open cover and an LED that glows different colors to show power and connection status. However, it lacks a nice feature offered by Sprint's Sierra Wireless modem - a jack for connecting an external antenna for a boost in places with a weak signal.

Like the Sierra Wireless modem, Verizon's LG VL600 can connect to both 4G and 3G networks; however, you can't manually switch between 3G and 4G as you can with Sprint's modem. If a Verizon 4G network is present, the VL600 automatically connects to it without letting you opt for 3G. For areas that don't have 4G coverage, the modem works fine in slower 3G mode.

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Setting up the LG VL600 modem took about 5 minutes, including getting an online update of Verizon's VZAccess Manager software. The program presents a clear view of the modem's status and the network's activity and can be used to connect to Wi-Fi networks in addition to Verizon's cellular networks.

On the down side, there's a bug in the VZAccess program that tells you that the modem's SIM card is invalid. If you ignore the error message and set the software to automatically connect you, it works fine. Verizon says that it will fix the problem in the next release of the program.

When used continuously, connecting to the Internet with the VL600 modem over Verizon LTE cut the battery life of my ThinkPad W510 test system to 2 hours and 20 minutes. That's 36% less than the 3 hours and 10 minutes I got when using a Wi-Fi connection but 18% better than the measly 1 hour and 59 minutes the Sierra Wireless 250U modem averaged over Sprint's WiMax network. (Next: Speed tests)

Speed Tests

When I tested Sprint's WiMax network in 10 locations in and around New York City, I was mighty impressed. I recorded a peak download speed of 11.2Mbit/sec., with an average of 4.1Mbit/sec. - about seven times faster than Sprint's 3G service in the same areas.

But the results I got in those same locations with Verizon's LTE network blew WiMax away. I recorded an astoundingly fast peak download speed of 26.1Mbit/sec., with an average of 13.3Mbit/sec. - more than three times faster than Sprint WiMax. That's much better than you're likely to get from a public Wi-Fi network at a hotel or Internet café, or even wired networks in many private homes or small offices.

Even more remarkable was the difference in upload speeds: Sprint's WiMax network poked along at an average 41Kbit/sec., while Verizon's LTE network was more than a hundred times faster in my tests, uploading an average of 5.5Mbit/sec. Such speeds are invaluable for those who upload lots of data, such as for creating and editing Web sites or transferring video files.

Verizon's 4G LTE network also had lower latency in my tests than Sprint's 4G service, which translates into smooth streaming videos. A measure of how long it takes the network to respond to a request, the 4G LTE network had a latency of 70 milliseconds, 37% better than the 112ms latency for Sprint WiMax.

A word of caution: I can only report the results I got at several specific locations in my area. If you're in a different part of the country (or even at a different location in the same general area), your results might be different. But based on my own tests and those I've seen from other testers around the country, I think it's safe to say that Verizon LTE is blazing fast.

The final piece of the 4G puzzle is cost. Sprint offers the Sierra Wireless AirCard 250U modem for free with a two-year contract, and the company has two monthly 4G mobile broadband plans:

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* The $50/mo. 4G Mobile Broadband Connection Plan offers unlimited data use, but only on Sprint's WiMax network.

* The $60 4G/3G Mobile Broadband Connection Plan offers unlimited 4G network use plus 5GB of data per month on Sprint's 3G network, which is more practical for anyone who travels widely.

There's also an option to pay $10 for 24 hours of unlimited 4G service, a boon for infrequent travelers.

Verizon's LG VL600 modem is $100 with a two-year contract, and the company has two 4G service plans. Fifty dollars a month gets you 5GB of data (regardless of whether you're using the 3G or 4G network), while $80 a month buys 10GB of data; each additional gigabyte costs $10 with both plans.

Verizon doesn't offer a 24-hour plan, as Sprint does, and its monthly 4G plans are much more expensive than Sprint's all-you-can-download plans.

Bottom Line

If you travel for a living, there's no better way to bring the office with you than by using a 4G network. From videoconferencing to downloading large presentations, you'll find your productivity soars with the speedy wireless access 4G brings.

My pick is Verizon's LTE service - if you can get it. It's not available in many places and is more expensive than Sprint's 4G WiMax service, but it's the fastest way I've found to connect on the road.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about Wireless Networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Topic Center.

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