4G Networks Tested: WiMAX vs. HSPA+
A look at 4G and "4G speed" networks currently being deployed in the US; how Sprint's WiMAX technology compares to T-Mobile's HSPA+ technology.
Today, America's first 4G phone goes on sale. We just published our
in-depth review of the HTC EVO 4G, but the other half of the story is the 4G network on which it runs. How does Sprint's shiny new 4G network - which uses WiMAX technology - actually perform?
Also making waves these days is T-Mobile's claim that its new HSPA+ network offers "4G speeds". How accurate is that statement, really?
We set out to answer those questions by conducting extensive testing in Philadelphia, one of the few areas where both technologies are commercially deployed. 4G means a lot of different things for the companies involved, but for consumers, it's basically about data speed; how fast can you load full web sites on your phone or watch Hulu on your laptop? We wanted to see how these fancy new networks stack up where it counts. What we found may surprise you.
Is Sprint's 4G network "up to ten times faster" than 3G, as Sprint claims? Eh... based on our tests, we'd say that's misleading. But Sprint's 4G network does work, and it is fast.
Does T-Mobile's HSPA+ network offer "4G speeds". Yes, absolutely. In fact, despite being an upgrade to existing "3G" technology, we found that T-Mobile's HSPA+ network was often slightly faster than Sprint's "4G" network. By some measures, it's much faster.
That's the problem with the term "4G". There's some confusion about what it means.
To the engineers that create these technologies and decide the standards - like the fine folks at the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) - a technology is only "4G" if it meets a list of criteria. The ITU says "4G" should offer speeds of at least 100 Mbps. No current technology comes close to meeting that requirement, so according to the ITU, what Sprint's offering - and even the LTE technology Verizon is working on - are not true 4G.
But try telling that to Sprint and Verizon, whose marketing departments have clearly decided that their big new networks are "4G". It's not purely marketing spin, though; there is some sense to it. Sprint and Verizon are building these 4G networks from scratch, not upgrading their 3G networks. That's because Sprint's WiMAX - and Verizon's LTE - are all-new technologies that have very little in common with 3G. These new technologies are more modern and more data-centric. Because it's a whole new generation of technology, more advanced than the existing 3G (3rd-generation) technology, it makes sense to call it 4th generation, or 4G.
T-Mobile's story is different. They're taking the existing WCDMA/HSDPA 3G network and upgrading it to HSPA+ technology. It's still technically considered 3G technology by most, but on the most important spec - data speed - it's just as fast as the other networks' 4G, making it very much a viable competitor, regardless of what "G" it is.
In this article, we didn't set out to compare all carriers' data networks head-to-head. Rather, we're focusing only on the new technologies being offered by the two carriers advertising 4G or 4G-like speed. For a comprehensive look at all carriers' 3G networks, PC Magazine just published a good comparison.
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