Category Archives: 3G

4G screaming wireless is awesome. You won’t get it for years.

If you’re wondering why economist Austan Goolsbee is pitching Obama’s plan to auction off airwaves and invest federal dollars in 4G wireless, beyond the vague promise of jobs, let’s take a look at what 4G could do and why it’s so slow in coming.

The good news is the next generation of wireless networks, called 4G, will be 50 times as fast as the pokey connection you now have on your iPhone or Droid smartphone. The bad news is without a big push, that true speed increase may take 15 years to get here.

The future is complicated. In the U.S. we’re now riding 3G, a cell system that moves information to your phone at about 2 megabits per second. (Quick refresher, class: A bit is the smallest unit of digital data, the on-off 1-or-0 of computer storage, with 8 bits adding up to 1 byte. Consumers are more familiar with bytes since those are the standard metric for computer hard drives, but data-transfer geeks talk in bits — same idea, just one-eighth the size.) The speedy broadband connection on your office computer sends data at about 4 to 5 megabits per second. So imagine what the world will be like when 4G arrives at 100 megabits per second — your phone and tablet will become lightning fast.

The implications are enormous. 4G speed would make two-way high-definition video calls seamless. You could download an entire HD film in three minutes. The superb video capabilities could crush the cable industry, as tablet holders pull down HD clips on demand anywhere, anytime. And 4G has a nice feature 3G doesn’t — seamless handoffs in data transfer as you leave one cell (wireless station zone) for another, meaning the Internet connection will really be always on, avoiding the hiccupy black holes you find, say, on the Amtrak Acela route from New York to DC.

If 4G pushes HD on-demand video everywhere, advertising is likely to be shaken to its core, as cable fades and mobile tablets rise. The revolutions in wireless will inspire thousands of new business models, which is why Goolsbee and Obama promise future jobs will blossom under 4G’s light.

That’s the dream, but now the nightmare. 4G won’t arrive anytime soon, despite the fact Sprint is pitching its current enhanced 3G network as 4G and Apple and Verizon promise to roll theirs out in the next two years. It’s not the carriers’ fault. True 4G coverage requires building about 10,000 cell sites that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop; CNN reports the whopping $8 billion price tag will add 30% to carrier operating costs, and it’s unlikely AT&T, Verizon and the others can swallow that all at once. Even if they build out aggressively, they have to maintain all the 3G service we now expect for the current generation of iPhones. Duplication and redundancy will brake our evolution to the always-on wireless Internet future.

This is likely why today’s first “4G” branded networks from Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint don’t come near the speed of true 4G.

Compounding the slow rollout is the fact new devices will quickly compete for the new bandwidth, creating traffic jams as 4G scales just as new highways paradoxically attract more cars. AT&T ran afoul of this very problem when it launched the iPhone; data traffic jumped 5,000% within a few years, and the company’s reward for being the first Apple phone carrier was a bad rep for spotty coverage and dropped calls.

Mobile can unlock economic potential. In today’s comparatively glacial 3G app economy, Goolsbee notes, “I understand there are even two kid millionaires in Finland selling games about angry birds.” Future million-dollar 4G business ideas are waiting, but without a push, it may be today’s 6th graders who get them.

Apple to launch faster iPhone. Early adopters cry.


Yeah, it’s official. Bloomberg reports at 3 a.m. this morning that Apple will sell an updated iPhone this spring, which will download the internet much faster using the 3G network. News came from AT&T’s chief Randall Stephenson.

Why on this good green Earth AT&T would say such a thing a few weeks before Christmas, with the holiday shoppers in full swing, is beyond us. Steve Jobs must be screaming now that word is out. Apple is targeting 10 million iPhone sales worldwide in 2008, which would give it 1% of the world’s mobile market. This won’t help sales.

It’s not a done deal yet, though. Apple has serious kinks to work out of the 3G upgrade, including battery life, since the high-speed data transfer can drain juice fast. Jobs himself noted Apple was having difficulty getting the battery life of a 3G iPhone up above 5 hours. The Samsung BlackJack, by comparison, uses the speedy 3G network and got slammed in reviews for a short battery run — what good is a sexy cell phone if you have to tether it to a wall outlet?

As for us, we returned our first iPhone in July. The guy at the Apple counter looked shocked, even after we explained we didn’t want to wait 2 minutes for every email with HTML to download. The current iPhone is a beautiful, glimmering paperweight. Can’t wait for it to work with the real internet come Easter.

Update: A reader notes Stephenson did not explicitly say spring, just “next year.” We bet spring anyway because now the news is out, iPhone sales will tank, and as the holiday spending frenzy ebbs Apple will need to juice its spring sales. If only we could get 3G for Christmas.