Verizon LTE: A Wireless Broadband FAQ

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Verizon Wireless says 4G network testing in Boston and Seattle has gone not just well, but surprisingly so, offering wireless data at speeds that top most wired broadband connections. With such promises, 4G is becoming the wireless buzzword of 2010, as Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint start to battle for 4G leadership. Here's what you need to know, starting with Verizon's LTE network.

What is LTE?

LTE stands for "Long Term Evolution," a name that sounds even stranger as LTE appears to be almost on the horizon for many users. The term "Long Term Evolution" refers to an ongoing process of improving wireless technology, not the endpoint of making that first generation of LTE available to customers. Already, work is underway on an even more advanced techology called LTE-Advanced.

LTE is a so-called 4G or fourth generation radio technology for mobile telecommunications networks. The current generation is 3G.

There is some debate over whether LTE is actually the endpoint for the evolution of 4G wireless. That is likely to become moot as major carriers rollout LTE and tout it as their "4G" offering.

The big thing customers will get from moving to LTE will be higher data speeds and, hopefully, less congestion, resulting in better throughput. However, this has yet to be proven and as more users are added, 4G systems could potentially become as troubled as some carrier's 3G networks. (Our most recent study found AT&T to offer the fastest 3G service.)

How fast is it?

Verizon's LTE testing has found download speeds to be between 5 and 12mbps and upload speeds between 2 and 5mbps. Maximum download speeds of up to 50mbps have been seen. These speeds, of course, are faster than most of today's home or small business wired broadband connections.

The speed figures are based on testing in Boston and Seattle and are much faster than the 6mbps that Verizon said it had expected to achieve. It is not clear what speeds other carrier's LTE networks will achieve or what a fully-loaded Verizon network might offer.

Where will we purchase LTE?

Based on its successful tests in Boston and Seattle, Verizon said it expects to offer LTE it in an additional 25 to 30 markets "soon."

AT&T has said it expects to make LTE widely available during 2011 and T-Mobile is also planning an LTE network in the U.S.

Verizon has recently boasted it expected to offer LTE 12-18 months ahead of AT&T.

Does LTE have competitors?

Yes. There is a competing 4G standard called "WiMAX" that is supported in the U.S. by Sprint, which is working with Clearwire to create its 4G network. Sprint says its first 4G smartphone will be out before the middle of this year. The company also recently began offering a 3G/4G mobile hotspot.

Sprint's 4G network has been in operation since 2008 and covers about 30 million people in the U.S. Expansion planned this year would increase the coverage to 120 million potential users. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has called 2010 "the year of 4G" at his company.

Sprint is claiming 3-6Mbps speeds for its WiMAX network.

Will you need a new handset?

Most likely, although many new 4G handsets will be compatible with the older 3G networks as well. It is hard to imagine any upgrading of current smartphones for the new networks, so users should expect to upgrade in order to get the higher speeds that 4G promises.

I've saved you the technical details, such as radio frequencies and modulation schemes, and hope to have answered the most immediate questions. If you have others, drop me an e-mail.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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