Monday, September 19, 2011

AT&T Introduces LTE Service

As promised, AT&T lit up its version of 4G LTE service in five US cities Sunday September 18, just in time to make their self imposed end of summer deadline. Various sources report a handful of devices including some smart phones and a tablet will soon be able to take advantage of the new high speed service. More cities will be added by year end and more devices will follow as soon as next month when the iPad3 and iPhone5 are due to hit the streets.

AT&T are third and dead last in the race to deliver 4G service to its customers. Verizon introduced LTE last year although the service was in place well before handheld devices were available that could use it. For several months, only air cards and USB modems enabled subscribers to take advantage of the new higher speed.

Sprint in partnership with Clearwire introduced their version of 4G, called WiMax in 2010, long before either of the other carriers. They offered an extensive array of smart phones, tablets and other devices that work on the old and the new network and achieved significant US coverage by the end of the year. Keep in mind WiMax is a different standard and requires different hardware chips and software than LTE (Long-Term Evolution.)

4G is the next generation of data service with much greater bandwidth (fatter pipes) allowing more data to be transmitted in less time. Being a bandwidth junkie with a desire to experience Android back in its early days, I arranged for my cell number to be ported to an HTC Hero on the Sprint network. This allowed me to try two new technologies at once and I found them both impressive enough to keep to this day. But that might soon change (see Apple Truly is Easy as Pie.)

When Verizon came on the scene they were the first with LTE. There were numerous tests and heated debates over the relative performance of these two technologies. You can find many articles evaluating the merits of WiMax versus LTE, each suggesting who can claim theirs is bigger, faster or more reliable. With AT&T joining the fray, we can expect to see another spate of comparisons, claims and counter-claims.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), none of these services actually qualified as 4G. True 4G is even faster than either of the current so-called 4G offerings but won't hit the streets before 2014. When it does it will require new hardware yet again. Moreover, it is still unclear whether everyone will migrate to the newer flavor of WiMax or LTE, or if the rivalry will perpetuate their coexistence. ITU has since relaxed its position and allows the current services to be called 4G even though they are not.

If you find all of this confusing its only because it is. The world of technology advances at the speed of light and keeping up is nearly impossible. It is often said the nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from. Just when you think you are in the mainstream someone will change all the rules.

My advice is to be clear about what is important to you in a smart phone or wireless device. Consider where the device will be used and select a carrier primarily on the basis of the coverage, performance and reliability of service in those areas. Every carrier now has Blackberry, iPhone and Android devices and sufficiently high speeds for the average user. Unless high bandwidth is absolutely critical don't let this influence your decision too much. Cost of the device and associated service plans is likely to be the second most important criteria. For business clearly the total cost of ownership and not just the initial expense or rate plan has to be considered.

If you're still confused, call the bridge and ask for the Captain. We'll help you navigate the channel.

Captain Joe

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