U.S. Wireless Carriers Take Different Routes Toward Fast 4G Service

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CTIA 2010, Las Vegas--The buzz over new, super-fast 4G networks is louder than ever here at the CTIA 2010 show. Everybody from handset makers to network infrastructure makers to app developers to network testing companies is talking about what they are doing to prepare for or participate in the movement of the entire ecosystem of wireless companies toward fast 4G service.

4G technology differs from 3G service in that it handles all services -- voice, internet access, etc. -- in the same way, as packets of data. 4G also uses different, and better, wireless spectrum than 3G service does, and is capable of providing far better speeds to far more people at the same time.

The two competing flavors of 4G wireless technology -- WiMAX and LTE (long-term evolution) -- are actually very similar technology-wise, but they operate in two different kinds of wireless spectrum.

Of course much of the buzz here is just marketing bluster, especially in the LTE world: No 4G-capable smartphones exist in the wild today, although that will not be the case by the time the wireless industry meets here next year.

On the network side, despite some infrastructure suppliers (Samsung, for example) touting ready-to-deploy LTE network gear, it may be another five years before we see a fully deployed LTE network in this country.

Still, the rapid growth in consumer demand for smartphones and the data service they use has created a sense of urgency in wireless to move quickly toward 4G technology. The wireless carriers, of course, all have their own approach toward moving to 4G, and some are moving faster than others.

Sprint's Big Lead in 4G

Sprint has a substantial lead over the other large U.S. carriers in the move to 4G. Sprint made early moves to adopt the WiMAX flavor of 4G, purchasing a controlling interest in Clearwire, which owns impressive amounts of wireless spectrum, and now operates commercial-grade WiMAX networks in 27 U.S. cities. Sprint 4G mobile broadband service runs on Clearwire's networks.

Sprint announced here at CTIA on Tuesday that its 4G would soon become available in Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City. Sprint and Clearwire earlier announced that WiMAX would be coming to New York City, Houston, Boston, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Denver, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Clearwire says it is improving its existing networks by doubling the number of transmitters and receivers at each of its cell sites. PCWorld performance tests have shown that WiMAX networks can pump out speeds that are 10 times faster than 3G, but that the reliability and consistency of that performance still lags behind that of 3G.

Sprint has already released a 3G/4G wireless hotspot device, the Overdrive, and just announced that its highly-anticipated 3G/4G phone -- the EVO 4G by HTC -- will begin selling this summer.

Next: Verizon's and AT&T's Plans

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