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Summary:

As next-generation wireless data networks roll out in the U.S., get ready to face more choices: Do you want speed, coverage, low price or unlimited use? Since we can’t have it all, here’s a rundown on which “4G” service is best for different reasons and uses.

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As someone who covers the mobile space for a living, I often get the benefit of testing out new wireless services just prior to, or after they launch. Devices for Verizon’s LTE network go on sale this Sunday, for example, but the carrier loaned us a review unit so we could test the network early. I’m also a consumer, meaning I select and pay for my own wireless service, so I’m always on the lookout for what best suits my mobile broadband needs and budget.

We can debate which of the current U.S. wireless services should have the “4G” tag — none of them actually meet the ITU’s official definition — but it really doesn’t matter what we call them. Each of the latest next-generation networks offer far greater speeds than their 3G predecessors, which have helped to advance smartphones, mobile apps and social networks. Now that there are multiple 4G choices in the U.S., which is right for you?

Obviously, the answer is impacted by many variables: what you intend to do on the network, how much you’ll use it in a given month, what your budget can support and where you need coverage. Based on my experience with each service, here are some useful observations and thoughts on each 4G mobile broadband provider, in alphabetical order.

AT&T

The second largest carrier may appear behind rivals when it comes to 4G, but there’s a method to the madness. Instead of rushing to offer LTE, which it will begin to do in mid-2011, AT&T is first upgrading its 3G network to faster speeds. Why? Because when future customers move out of LTE coverage areas, the fallback to 3G won’t be as drastic of a speed reduction.

That means faster network speeds are yet to come for AT&T, so if you must have the fastest mobile broadband possible, AT&T isn’t your choice just yet. However, the 3G network upgrades are increasing throughput on current devices in some areas of the country. And folks that don’t use much data can save money with smaller, cheaper price plans that start at $15 for 200 MB.

Verdict: Wait and see, but 3G might be good enough for most uses now while a more consistent experience arrives next year.

Sprint / Clearwire

I’ve lumped these together as both companies are jointly offering service on the same WiMAX network, so speeds and pricing are similar. This 4G network advertises peak downloads of 10 Mbps with average speeds in the 3 to 6 Mbps range. I’ve found the network coverage to be spotty at times, however, and experience wild variances in speeds: more so than on any other network. And the WiMAX signal uses a relatively high 2.5 GHz frequency, which doesn’t penetrate walls or other objects as well as what other providers offer.

Still, the pricing is right because unlimited 4G use can be had for $45 a month. You can theoretically consume 50 GB for that flat fee, which would likely cost hundreds in overage charges from other providers. With the right devices, plans also include 5 GB of 3G data usage; handy in areas of gaps in 4G coverage.

Verdict: Good for general purpose web use if 3G isn’t fast enough and great on the wallet. Can even be a home broadband connection for some.

Rover

This is actually a brand of Clearwire’s service, but is unique in that it caters to the pre-paid market. Customers can enjoy the same speedy WiMAX network at home or on the road as a Sprint or Clearwire customer can, but there is no contract. Network use is still unlimited so you pay for it based on time: $5 for a day, $20 for a week, or $50 for a month of all-you-can-eat service. Other than the pricing model and devices offered, it’s the same WiMAX service in terms of performance and coverage.

Verdict: An excellent value if you live in a coverage area and only need mobile broadband from time to time or if you’d prefer to not have a contract.

T-Mobile

Although T-Mobile was the last to rollout 3G service, it will be the first to have its network upgraded to faster speeds. For now, the operator is relying on 21 Mbps HSPA+, the same technology AT&T will use as fallback for LTE next year. I personally use T-Mobile’s service on a daily basis (as a paying customer) and find its upgraded network faster than the 3G speeds I’ve used for several years, although not as fast as Verizon’s new LTE service.

The company also offers a bit of a compromise between usage and pricing: there are no overage charges if you blow past 5 GB in a month, but the company retains the right to slow down speeds as a result. Geographically, T-Mobile doesn’t offer the breadth of coverage provided by other carriers.

Verdict: Not the fastest 4G, but very good and consistent if you live in a coverage area. You don’t have to worry about overages, but speeds can drop off quickly if you move beyond the network while on the go.

Verizon Wireless

If you’re among the 110 million people who live in one of the initial 38 markets for Verizon’s new LTE service, it’s worth the look due to the blazing fast mobile broadband. Out of all the wireless services I’ve used, Verizon’s performed the best for every use so far: streaming online video, downloading or uploading large files and other bandwidth intensive uses. Since the network has very few users, speeds could decline marginally, which is worth noting.

You’ll need to balance your use with your budget, however: with faster speeds, you could blow through 5 GB in as little as 32 minutes, says Sascha Segan at PC Mag. Verizon charges $50 for 5 GB, and each gigabyte after that is an additional $10, making Sprint’s or Clearwire’s 4G unlimited service far more attractive. And users of Mac OS X computers aren’t yet supported by Verizon LTE devices, although that’s expected to change soon.

Verdict: If you have the need for speedy sipping of data right now, want fast upload speeds, have coverage and don’t mind potentially paying more for additional data, Verizon’s LTE is a must-look.

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  1. Kevin – good angle on this. It will be interesting to see how pricing, carrier spectrum, and bandwidth speeds ultimately play out in the market. All the tech-geeks get excited about the absolute fastest wireless protocol – but I wonder what user percentage/use case actually *needs* the incremental speed bump from, say, HSPA+ to LTE.

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  2. I’m pretty certain that Verizon’s network is awesome and I’ve had the service for 5 years, but them wanting $50 for LTE 4G doesn’t sit too well with me :/

    Kevin, good explanation on the purposes here.

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  3. One angle not mentioned is the usage scenario with notebooks/netbooks. I currently use Virgin Mobile’s 3G service via a MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot. $40/month for unlimited 3G is a fantastic deal, and while the faster speeds of 4G would certainly be beneficial, the restrictive usage caps certainly aren’t.

    Clearwire recently had a deal where you could buy a 4G mobile hotspot for $20. Combined with the $45 unlimited 4G plan, it would make ditching my home DSL almost a no brainer.

    I say almost, because coverage is still spotty. That, and the fact that I need all-day internet access for my notebook/netbook/smartphone makes a capped plan simply out of the question. There’s no way I’m going to be paying $250 in overage charges every month for true wireless freedom.

    The bottom line in my case falls on three essential factors. First is the availability of a mobile 4G hotspot device for use with my multiple devices. Clearwire does that. Clearwire also offers an uncapped plan, which again fulfills the needs of all-day notebook/netbook use. Third, is solid coverage, and right now I’m in a fringe area that only “promises” future coverage. Yet without a working signal to grab, I’m in no position to give them my money, despite my eagerness to cut the cord and ditch my home DSL.

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  4. It will take some time for this to get up to speed, but they are getting crazy with all these fees we the consumer will have to pay. With all the other monthly expenses most people have this will drain you even more. That’s why it’s good to wait for six moths to a year and the pricing will come down.

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  5. For people who want to ditch their DSl/cable internet and jump on ClearWire “unlimited internet”, do yourself a favor: Search about ClearWire throttle.

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  6. “Why? Because when future customers move out of LTE coverage areas, the fallback to 3G won’t be as drastic of a speed reduction.”

    Kevin, you’re a writer, not a valley girl, what’s this ‘OF’?

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