iPhone 4 and 4G Cellular Networks – Apples and Oranges

These days the term “4G” is thrown around very loosely, and used interchangeably to describe the fourth generation of the iPhone (iphone 4), or the fourth generation of cellular networks. The most common misconception, which marketing geniuses gladly perpetuate, is that the iPhone 4 runs on the “faster” 4G network. Not exactly.

First let’s examine the current cellular network services to understand what they offer in simple terms. There are three to four standards of cellular networks available from most carriers – 2G, “Edge”, 3G, and 4G. The “G” stands for generation, not Gigahertz. 2G was launched on the GSM standard in 1991, offers digital encryption of cellular conversations, significant mobile penetration for cellular signals (in buildings, for example), and introduced data services such as SMS messaging and email. The digital 2G service reduced fraud because the cloning of handsets became nearly impossible. It reduced power requirements for handsets so they could become smaller, and dramatically increased handling capacity for cell towers. This brought costs, and prices, down across the industry. It also eliminated most of the static we had grown accustomed to on the analog systems of the 80s. Now instead of static, the call drops out.

“Edge”, also referred to as “2.75G”, stepped up capacity and allowed higher data rates within the GSM system.

“3G” provides a minimum peak data rate of 200kbits per second, enabling intenet access, video calls, and transmission of images in a “reasonable” amount of time. Several version of 3G now exist, mostly to provide mobile broadband connectivity for smartphones and laptops. The minimum data transfer rate is generally considered to be 2megbits per second on 3G, though enhanced versions of this standard are a bit faster, yet don’t qualify as “4G”.

“4G”, or “Fourth Generation” cellular sets the peak download speed minimum at 100 megabits per second for transmission to/from a moving vehicle, and 1 Gigabit transmission rate for a stationary phone. Interestingly, many cell providers market “3.9G” transmission standards as “4G”, because they offer a significant improvement over what we understand to be 3G. But technically, such “4G” designation is incorrect. Without getting into too many details, let’s just say that even within the 4G standard, not only are all 4G services not alike, but some aren’t truly “4G” at all. Instead, they are 3G LTE, which fpr the sake of argument you could think of as “Enhanced 3G”.

The race between the cellular companies to offer the most comprehensive “4G” networks is now on. Sprint claims to have one of the largest “4G” networks available, which according to their marketing materials can provide “up to” 10 times faster mobile broadband connectivity. But ten times faster than what? Morse code?

Verizon, meanwhile, touts all the money it is investing in its extensive “4G” network across the country. Who doesn’t remember the “can you hear me now” ads we were bombarded with for years. And, judging from the excellent reputation it has earned with its subscribers, Verizon is often regarded as one of the most reliable cellular networks. The power of repetitive marketing. It’s certainly the largest, by number of subscribers.

AT&T, meanwhile, touts “more bars”, which refers to their 3G network, with no mention of the 4G standard. Pressured by the competition, even AT&T has had to roll out its own version of 4G development, and promises a “great things ahead”, “coming soon” and “please don’t leave us yet” strategy. Last year they announced a plan to invest $17 Billion in their infrastructure across the country.

What does it all mean to the average consumer who just wants a phone that works, provides email and some occasional entertainment while waiting in line at the bank? It means that if you want the fastest possible service, one that allows live-streaming of television programing, or video chat with the office, the kids, or your significant other, then you want “real” 4G – not the beefed up 3G service they’re labeling 4G. It will, of course, cost you. And, no iphone currently on the market offers 4G compatibility. The best you can do with an iphone is 3G (either GSM or CDMA), period.

As of this writing, the only 4G-capable smartphones available are made by Samsung, Motorola, HTC and LG. They sport the Android operating system introduced by Google. Sprint offers 4G connectivity today. Verizon is waving the “coming soon!” banner. In view of that, it’s easy to understand the serious threat that Android phones pose to the iPhone’s market share. Indeed, it’s no accident that sales of Android phones have been brisk, and have already apparently cannibalized a part of Blackberry’s share of the market

Closing in on Verizon are Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile, both with their own versions of “4G”. At the moment, Verizon leads with 5-12mgb per second, followed by Sprint at 3-6mgb per sec, and then T-Mobile at 3-7mgb per sec.

While AT&T apparently can’t offer 4G service yet, it’s reported that it already has the capability to support those speeds and the newer technology on it’s current infrastructure.

It’s just a matter of time before we all will be using 4G. At the moment however, not only can the newest iPhone on the market NOT handle the faster, broader-spectrum cellular network speed known as 4G – AT&T hasn’t rolled out its version of the 4G network yet.

While Verizon starts to bring their version of 4G online in certain metropolitan markets, the Verizon version of the iPhone won’t run on it. It’s a 3G-only, CDMA phone. To top it off, Verizon recently announced that it would be “throttling down” data speeds on its mobile networks to compensate for the anticipated spike in new iphone users. (Verizon iPhone 4 sales are apparently below predictions by the way). Some are concerned that this 3G may end up slower than it was prior to the introduction of the Verizon iphone.

The Apple iPhone 4 is not capable of 4G speeds. Buy it because it’s cool. Buy it because it works seamlessly with you Mac. But don’t buy it because it’s faster online. It’s just not . . . yet.