Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Max Indeed? Is the Contest Over?

You hear a lot about 3G and 4G cellular service. Carriers have been bragging in print advertising, on-line and television commercials that they have the fastest and most reliable networks. These networks each have a different underlying technology and if you have ever wondered why your Sprint phone won't work on the AT&T network this is the reason. Inside the phone are electronics that use a specific standard of communication with the towers.

The world was originally split between CDMA and TDMA. Later, GSM came on the scene. What these acronyms mean is not important. But choosing your carrier meant you were in one camp or the other and this had an impact on where and how well you phone would perform. The US and a few other parts of the globe  used CDMA but the majority of the rest of the world used GSM.

All of these so called 3G technologies have been improved and increased in speed and capacity. A new standard called WiMax emerged bringing extraordinary speed to smart phones. About four years ago it was embraced by Sprint and introduced as the first 4G network. This was a departure from the traditional CDMA technology found in Sprint (and Verizon) phones. AT&T and T-Mobile enhanced their networks with faster variants of the GSM standard but couldn't really match the performance of WiMax.

A few weeks ago I wrote about AT&T introducing LTE to their network in a couple of cities. Verizon has rolled LTE out to most of their major cities. LTE is the 4G successor to GSM and has proven to outperform WiMax.

While there have been some developments that promise to deliver a supercharged WiMax, it would appear the battle is over and LTE has won. Sprint is making noises and is rumored to have started converting their network to LTE. Their partner, Clearwire, is also making the change.

If this is true it will be the first time all major carriers will have adopted a single global standard. This is significant for a number of reasons.

When all the carriers use the same technology on their towers, customers will have more towers to provide capacity. This should dramatically improve coverage and performance. These new standards can support more calls as well, so even within carrier this has the effect of increasing capacity.

It might also mean one day we will reach nirvana and unravel the phone from the carrier. Much like the ability to take your phone number with you when you change carriers, you may be able to keep your phone. This is how it works in Europe and other parts of the world. Changing the SIM or personality chip is all that will be required to move from Sprint to Verizon or AT&T.

There are still a number of business and technical reasons which will  keep your phone married to a specific carrier. But having everyone on the LTE band-wagon is a move in the right direction.

Captain Joe

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