Verizon Wireless LTE Network Is Coming but It's Still Not 4G

News Analysis: Verizon Wireless joins the 4G marketing fray with its not-exactly-4G LTE solution.

Verizon Wireless has begun advertising its deployment of LTE to 38 U.S. cities by the end of 2010, as originally reported by eWEEK nearly two months ago. The fact that Verizon Wireless was building out its LTE (long-term evolution) network hasn't been a secret for a while, but this is the first time that the company has actually been running television commercials about the launch.

This is also the first time that Verizon Wireless has begun calling its LTE service "4G," which of course it isn't.

Although Verizon Wireless published a list of cities to be included in the launch when it made the announcement, the company now includes a handy 4G location finder and additional information about its new LTE service. According to the location finder, I'll have Verizon Wireless 4G service in my neighborhood, which will be an interesting development considering that I don't currently have even Verizon Wireless 1G. The closest thing I have is 0G, which involves copper wires.

But let's say that the launch goes off as promised, which I suspect it will. The new service will provide download speeds of 5M to 12M bps, which is faster than Sprint's WiMax and fairly close to T-Mobile's HSPA+ (high-speed packet access) in its current configuration, although T-Mobile is claiming a speed boost to 48M bps fairly soon through a software upgrade to its existing cell sites. To actually experience these speeds from Verizon Wireless, you'll need to get one of their soon-to-be released USB sticks for LTE, which should go on the market just in time for the holidays.

You will not, however, see any phones or PDAs running LTE until January or February. So your dreams of a Droid 4G will have to wait for the President's Day sales. Once that happens, and assuming that Verizon's LTE service lives up to its promises, the company's existing access to streaming applications, music services and the like should be even better than it is already. Verizon Wireless has been including applications that make use of these services since the original Droid came out, so it's unlikely that the negative experiences iPhone users suffered at the hands of AT&T will be repeated.

This is a good thing, considering that Verizon Wireless should be getting ready to release its own version of the iPhone shortly after the LTE network goes live. However, it's unclear whether the Verizon iPhone will support LTE in its initial release. It's also unclear whether Verizon Wireless will introduce usage-based pricing for LTE, whether such pricing will be only for LTE and not the older EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) network, or whether unlimited data plans will remain available.

What is clear, of course, is that Verizon Wireless' claims that its LTE network is 4G is true only if you admit that 4G is a marketing term that means "really fast." It does not meet the specifications of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) for the next generation networks. While LTE is one of the standards mentioned by the ITU, as is WiMax, the data rate for Verizon Wireless' 4G service is nowhere near the 100M bps speeds for mobile devices set in the ITU proposed standards.

But of course, there are a couple of loopholes in those standards. One is that they aren't final, and until they are, they are not really actual standards. The best you can say is that they're proposed. The second loophole is that the ITU doesn't actually refer to its next-generation standard as a "4G" standard. While that may change, right now it's open season for the marketing staffs at all of the mobile carriers to call their really fast connections "4G."

Perhaps more important is the fact that the general public has no idea what the ITU is, or why its standards are important. What the end users care about is whether the data network they're planning to use is really fast, or just kind of fast. Some people want a really fast wireless connection, and they're willing to pay for it regardless of whether it's really 4G.

Initially, at least, the 4G data service will be available in 38 cities and in a collection of large airports. This means that even if you're in a city that has LTE, the chances are pretty good that you won't be getting the promised 5M- to 12M-bps speeds. That kind of performance will be available only in some spots in the areas with coverage and will decline as you move away from those spots. This is much like my tests of the T-Mobile G2, where I had to test in a specific burger joint in Fairfax, Va., if I wanted to get the full 4G HSPA+ experience.

So if you buy one of those Verizon Wireless USB sticks, you'll almost certainly get a better data connection than you would if you had stayed with the older EvDO wireless cards. If you want to be certain that you can experience the speed, you can buy a ticket to somewhere, have yourself groped and fondled by the TSA (U.S. Transportation Security Administration), and then hang out in an airport of your choice. You'll have a great high-speed connection that you can use to complain, send videos of the groping and maybe get some work done. By the mid-first quarter of 2011, there will be more cities, more devices and maybe a chance to enjoy Verizon Wireless' LTE in a broader area.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...