With yesterday's announcement by Verizon of its LTE (Long-Term Evolution) 4G network, the battle of the 4G mobile networks has officially started. It all started with Sprint and Clear, which Sprint owns 50% of, with their 4G WiMax network that was launched a couple of years ago and is now available in about 60 markets including Los Angeles and San Francisco officially yesterday. T-Mobile entered the game a few months ago with its enhanced 3G HSPA+ network with "4G speeds" and AT&T recently announced that their upgraded 3G HSPA 7.2 network with "4G speeds" will be available by the end of 2010. While technically, none of these networks are actually 4G as defined by the International Telecommunication Union's strict definition , they are all many times faster than 3G with download speeds from 3 to 21 megabits per second, depending on which network, compared to 0.6-2.1 megabits per second for 3G. The ITU defines 4G as network technology that must be IP-based and use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), which none of the current networks are. The other main requirement is that the technology needs to support peak download speeds of 100Mbps. The current flavors of LTE and WiMax are not that fast and neither is the technology T-Mobile is using, which is called HSPA+. To make sense of all the new 4G choices, we wanted to compare the various offerings to make sense of it all.
CLEARWIRE 4G WIMAX
Clearwire was the first 4G provider on the market and is a joint venture between Sprint and a number of cable companies and Google with Sprint owning 50% of the venture. With the recent addition of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Clearwire reaches 66 markets and 100 million people with plans to add more markets and 120 million people by the end of 2010. The service offers up to 10 megabits per second download and 1 megabit per second upload and while not in a 4G service area, users have access to Sprints 3G network with download speeds of 0.6-1.4 megabits per second and upload speeds of 350-500 kilobits per second. Clearwire's part owners, Sprint, Bright House, Google, Comcast and Time Warner Cable also resell Clearwire's 4G services under its own brands and bundles and pricing vary. According to its latest earning announcements, Clearwire has 1.01 million subscribers with an additional 1.83 million subscribers sold by its partners making it the largest 4G provider.
Clearwire offers a number of 4G service plans with unlimited data starting at $45 per month, which is the cheapest of all the providers for an unlimited data plan, though you have to be in an area they have 4G service in. At $55 per month, they have a 4G+3G plan where users on this plan can access Sprint's 3G network though they will be limited to 5GB per month when on 3G. In terms of devices, Clearwire does not offer 4G phone service, though Sprint offers two 4G smartphones (see Sprint below) using a re-branded version of Clearwire's 4G service, but does offer the most comprehensive range of devices with 2 USB modems, 3 personal mobile hotspots, 1 home modem and 1 home modem/routers. For USB modems, devices can be leased for $4-6 per month on a two year contract or purchased for $80-120 if going month-to-month.The nice thing with Clearwire's month-to-month plans is that you can start and stop at anytime so if you don't need it for a few months, you can turn it off and not get charged. For personal mobile hotspots, Clearwire has a device called the iSpot marketed specifically to iPod/iPhone/iPad users as a bandwidth enhancer. It sells for $99 and you pay $25 per month for unlimited 4G service though it is capped at 6 megabits per second download speeds. Other hotspots can be leased for $5-9 per month with two year contract or purchased for $99-225 for with month-to-month contracts. Clearwire also has home-based modems that are $5 per month without router or $7 per month with Wi-Fi router on two year contract of $85 and $120, respectively on month-to-month contracts.
SPRINT 4G WIMAX
The Sprint 4G WiMax service, which is actually a re-branded version of Clearwire's 4G WiMax service, was the first 4G phone and data service on the market offered by one of the four large mobile carriers. Sprint offers 2 phones currently, the HTC Evo 4G, which was the 4G phone on the market, and the Samsung Epic 4G, both of which are $199.99 with a two year contract. For data only devices, Sprint offers 2 different USB modems, the 250U and the U600, as well as its Overdrive portable hotspot device. For plans, Sprint offers its unlimited 4G only plan for $49.99 and its 4G/3G plan for $59.99 with unlimited data usage when using the 4G WiMax network and up to 5GB per month when on its 3G network when 4G service isn't available. USB Modems are free with a two year contract while the Overdrive personal hotspot is $49.99 with a two year contract.
VERIZON 4G LTE
Verizon is initially launching its LTE 4G service with two service plans users can get 5 Gigabytes of data per month for $50 or 10GB of data for $80 a month. Customers who exceed this limit will be charged $10 for every 1GB that goes over the limit. Clearwire claims that its users use an average of 7GB per month so the Verizon plan would cost users $70 based on that usage since it is not unlimited. Verizon's 4G data plans are cheaper than Verizon’s 3G plans, which run $60 for 5 gigabytes and $40 for 250 megabytes. With their LTE 4G launch, Verizon will have two USB data cards, the LG VL600 and the Pantech UML290, available on December 5th with more devices coming according to the company. The devices will cost $99 with a $50 rebate and a two-year contract for the service but are only compatible with PCs so Mac users are out of luck for the moment if they want to get on Verizon's LTE 4G network. While Verizon did not announce any phones with its LTE 4G announcement today, it said it will have 4G phones early next year. Verizon's LTE network is launching in 38 markets reaching over 100 million potential users according to Verizon reaching 200 million potential customers by 2011 and 285 million customers by 2013.
While T-Mobile's new enhanced HSPA+ network is technically an enhanced 3G network, T-Mobile is positioning it as a 4G network claiming to be the largest 4G network reaching over 100 markets and over 200 million people by the end of 2010. Of course, this is possible because instead of a real 4G network where new towers had to be built, T-Mobile only had to upgrade their existing 3G networks. This shouldn't matter though as the end result is speeds of up to 21 megabits per second download and up to 5.7 megabits upload. With these numbers, T-Mobile's maximum speeds exceed those of all the other 4G networks, though this can be misleading and T-Mobile does not publish average speeds as opposed to maximum speeds. T-Mobile currently has two 4G smartphones, the myTouch 4G and the G2 by Google, which cost $199.99 with two year contract and one USB modem, the Rocket 2.0 4G Laptop Stick, which is free with two year contract. Services plans are $25 per month for up to 200MB of data usage or $39.99 per month for unlimited data usage though this is technically for enhanced 3G service with "4G" speeds where available.
AT&T, like T-Mobile, is based on UTMS/HSPA technology and it has been upgrading its network to HSPA+ which it says will be finished by the end of 2010 and reaching 97% of America or over 250 million users by the end of 2010. Unlike T-Mobile, AT&T is not positioning their enhanced HSPA+ network as a 4G network like T-Mobile rather positioning themselves as the fastest and widest reaching 3G network according to AT&T with maximum download speeds of up to 14.4 megabits per second, though it has not released any specifics as to actual speeds and performance. AT&T will also be building out its 4G LTE network for launch some time in 2011 claiming it will be the fastest LTE 4G network when it launches. Services plans are $35 per month for up to 200MB of data usage or $60 per month for 5GB of data usage though this is for 3G service.
SO WHICH ONE?
Obviously, there are many choices and a lot of different technologies as well as marketing spins. The bottom line is if you want speed, T-Mobile appears to have the fastest maximum download and upload speeds claimed though more real world testing needs to be done to validate this claim. If you want reach, AT&T claims it will reach 97% of America with its enhanced 3G service. If you want unlimited data, Clearwire, Sprint and T-Mobile offer unlimited data with its plans. If you want a 4G phone, only Sprint has a true 4G phone though T-Mobile's enhanced 3G "4G" phones go faster on paper. Clearwire has the most assorted range of devices though they do not have any phones and has the best deals on 4G only and 4G+3G service plans and also offer month-to-month pay-as-you-go plans. If you own an Apple iPhone/iPod/iPad, then Clearwire also has an incredible deal with its $25 iSpot Apple hotspot plan. However, Clearwire is also the most financially unstable of all the companies so there is the risk it could go out of business so buyer beware. The bottom line is that there is something for everyone and with the 4G wars heating up, you, the end user will ultimately benefit with faster, more mobile data service with better value. This should speed up the evolution towards a totally connected world.