What Every Jamaican Should Know About 4G Wireless Technology [FAQ]
Many Jamaicans have been very excited about the introduction of Digicel Jamaica’s 4G mobile broadband service, as they have been dissatisfied and disappointed with Digicel’s competitors, Claro and LIME who both currently offer 3G wireless service. Customers have been quick to switch to Digicel’s offering knowing well that the promise of 4G, would mean faster browsing and download speed and much more reliable service.
So 4G is launched, but what really is 4G wireless technology? Is Digicel delivering on their promises of true 4G standards and what can be expected from this innovation? The average Digicel customer may not be able to answer these questions so we’ve decided to publish a useful FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) to shed some light on the technology. The term “4G” does represent the next generation in mobile technology, with faster speed and better coverage but there is also a lot of confusion regarding competing standards and tricky marketing lingo.
Here are some useful facts about 4G:
1. What is 4G?
In theory, 4G is the fourth generation of cellular communications, a successor to current cellular networks known as 3G (third generation). In practice, 4G is a combination of marketing speak and future technology. Digicel’s “4G / WiMAX” could be more accurately be called 3.5G, or 3.75G but the goal is for this system to upgrade to full 4G in the future.
The promise of 4G is two-fold. Cellular data speeds will be faster — 10x faster than current 3G speeds. And the technology can help solve the “last mile” dilemma (the difficult final leg of connecting customers to a network) that prevents rural areas from getting service. 4G data can move faster, and it can get to more people.
2. What are the various versions of 4G?
Currently, advertised 4G is really just late-stage 3G. The two formats designated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as “true 4G technologies” are:
- LTE Advanced (Long Term Evolution Advanced)
- WiMAX Release 2
There aren’t any large-scale deployments of either of these. However, their predecessors — LTE and WiMAX — are currently available.
As Digicel advertises their own version of 4G, officially it consists of three different technologies:
HSPA+ — This is more like an upgrade to regular 3G. HSPA+ offers faster speeds, but takes advantage of the same infrastructure. The first HSPA+ deployments began in 2008, and are now widely available throughout the world. T-Mobile’s “4G” network in the U.S. is HSPA+. Likewise, the first stage in AT&T’s 4G roll-out includes HSPA+.
LTE — LTE, or Long Term Evolution, doesn’t fully comply with 4G requirements. But it is what most people consider 4G. This is the system being adopted by Verizon, Metro PCS and AT&T in the U.S. Most European carriers have also committed to LTE. It is upgradable to LTE Advanced — so once that kicks in, it will be easy to upgrade an LTE phone into full-on 4G. Verizon started deploying its LTE network in December 2010. AT&T has announced it will start rolling out 4G LTE the second half of 2011. AT&T has a HSPA+ deployment, which it will use as a backup to LTE. Both AT&T and Verizon expect to have the bulk of their LTE deployments in place by the end of 2013.
WiMAX — This is Digicel Jamaica’s version of 4G and is also what Sprint, Nextel and Clearwire are using in the U.S. It’s also the dominant service in Canada. Sprint’s 4G network combines the Clearwire 4G data network with Sprint’s 3G voice network.
3. How fast is 4G, really? Can I cancel my ISP subscription yet?
4G has the potential to be insanely fast. The various technologies should be able to deliver download speeds of 1Gbps when stationary (in the home), and 100 Mbps while mobile. Those kinds of speeds make cable and DSL networks look like dial-up.
In practice, neither LTE (True 4G technology) or Digicel’s WiMAX is going to offer that kind of speed. At best, since the launch of Digicel 4G, some users have experienced up to 9 Mbps and this was experienced in keys areas such as Montego Bay and New Kingston. Unfortunately, users of Digicel 4G over the past few months have experienced a great reduction in download speed which is now at an average of 2 – 4 Mbps. Yes, that is still faster than Claro and LIME’s 3G which averages around 1.5 – 2 Mbps. However, true 4G technology is much faster than what Digicel is currently offering and as coverage areas increase and networks grow more robust, that number could increase.
In the U.S., T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network already tops 21 Mbps in some areas. Realistically, users can expect about half of that. But T-Mobile and AT&T both plan to upgrade the HSPA+ offerings on their networks.
Most users will not be able to replace a home Internet connection with 4G, and that likely won’t change for several more years, especially since Flow Jamaica is now offering up to 100 Mbps. The exception is users in rural areas, where it’s often extremely difficult to get cable, fiber or DSL. For these users, even the first wave of LTE or WiMAX may be speedier than what they could even get from satellite — and at a lower price.
4. When will 4G phones become available in Jamaica?
There have been rumors of Digicel releasing 4G capable phones sometime in 2011 so let’s wait and see what happens. However, we will not see a full release of 4G capable handsets until they make more progress with the 4G roll-out island-wide. Although areas such as Kingston, Montego Bay and Negril have 4G, majority of the island does not. So it will be a while before we see 4G handsets in Jamaica.
Throughout 2011 we should see a plethora of 4G handsets being release by manufacturers around the world. The most popular 4G handsets released are:
- Samsung Epic 4G
- HTC EVO Shift 4G
- myTouch 4G
5. Where can I learn more about 4G?
Check out these sources:
- 3G and 4G Wireless Blog offers good coverage of the 3G and 4G industries as well as information on VoLTE (Voice over LTE).
- LTE Encyclopedia gives a good overview of the technology, deployment strategies and policies surrounding LTE.
- SIP Mobile Matters contains analysts’ thoughts, links to pertinent news articles and other industry information.
- Dean Bubley’s Disruptive Wireless blog has analysis from a high-profile consultant in the wireless industry.
Do you have more questions about 4G? Feel free to ask us using the comment section below.