Summary:

You couldn’t go more than four minutes this week at CTIA without hearing somebody talk about 4G, the next-generation wireless data technolog…

CTIA 2010: Sprint event trumps 4G
photo: Tricia Duryee

You couldn’t go more than four minutes this week at CTIA without hearing somebody talk about 4G, the next-generation wireless data technology that will supposedly unleash a whole new wave of innovation, make everybody rich, and rescue kittens from trees. A wave of new devices unveiled this year that are being sold with the 4G label might convince one that the technology has already arrived, but as usual in the wireless mobile world, the situation is a great deal more complicated.

Here’s a few thoughts on the current and future state of the march to 4G.

What is 4G?: There are four major wireless carriers in the U.S. (for now) and they each have a slightly different definition of what it means to be 4G. Most of the confusion stems from the fact that there is no true recognized standard for the use of the 4G term, only an initial recommendation from the International Telecommunications Union that such networks be capable of providing 1Gbps (gigabits per second) download speeds to a person standing still holding a phone and 100Mbps to someone traveling on a train or in a car, among other suggestions. It didn’t help matters when the ITU decided in December that it wouldn’t protest the labeling of slower technologies as 4G.

So Sprint (NYSE: S) tells its 4G customers to expect max download speeds over 10Mbps and average download speeds of between 3Mbps and 6Mbps, which is still much faster than the average speeds of 600Kbps to 1.4Mbps seen on its 3G network. Verizon, having adopted the LTE standard, pledges its 4G network can hit speeds between 5Mbps and 12Mbps. (Verizon and Sprint use the same 3G technology).

AT&T (NYSE: T) is all over the map, with plans to move to LTE but unready to roll out that technology until the middle of this year. In the interim, it’s marketing 4G phones based on the HSPA+ standard that are theoretically capable of hitting max download speeds of 6Mbps “with enhanced backhaul,” something it has had trouble turning on with regularity across the U.S. It doesn’t commit to an LTE speed on its 4G Web site.

And T-Mobile, which may wind up not having to worry about this at all if its proposed sale to AT&T goes through, is stretching things as well with its current HSPA+ network. T-Mobile cites “peak” download speeds of 21Mbps, but peak speeds are rarely achieved in the real world of buildings, weather, and abused handsets. It doesn’t provide average speeds at all, and admitted in the press release announcing the AT&T deal that it “has no clear path to LTE.”

None of these can be considered nationwide technologies, either. It takes years to build out a reliable network, and one can make a reasonable argument that not all of the above companies successfully completed a truly reliable nationwide 3G network rollout.

However, ready or not, we’re entering the 4G era, and your mileage will definitely vary.

Why it matters: For all the squabbling over whether or not this is really 4G or 3.9G or 3.14G, it’s still a strong step forward for mobile computing.

Remember when you used to care deeply about how fast the processor was in your PC, but knew that substantial upgrades arrived only every couple of years? Network speeds are a bit like that: the original iPhone ran on the 2.5G EDGE network in 2007, which was slow by 2007 standards. Today, 3G networks seem too slow as we use more and more sophisticated mobile applications and yearn for things like mobile video.

An awful lot of hot air was spilled this week about the wireless industry’s role in creating innovation, but it’s true to a certain extent. Better, faster tools allow talented people to create things that have never been attempted and make existing things with promise but challenges finally make sense.

There are obvious implications for mobile video, both streaming to devices and from devices. Carriers are also excited about the prospect that you’ll spend more time on their networks as opposed to Wi-Fi: for example, if you’re on a DSL or slow cable-modem connection, the Wi-FI connected Internet in your house could be slower than 4G, depending on things like your location and the building materials. That could change the way that companies think about rolling out applications, wholeheartedly embracing Google (NSDQ: GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt’s “think mobile first” mantra.

Why it’s not so easy: Spectrum, spectrum, spectrum. The only word spoken more than 4G at CTIA was spectrum, which finally drove my former colleague Ina Fried to suggest a spectrum-related drinking game on Twitter, which would have had us all loaded by mid-morning of the first day.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but spectrum is sort of like wires for the sky, the conduit for the wireless signals that carry those videos and e-mails to your phone. The problem is there’s only so much of it that’s useful to wireless operators, and as demand on the network rises, overcrowded spectrum can lead to all kinds of problems.

It’s one thing to build out a network of fast cell towers, but it’s another to actually make sure they can transmit their signals. It’s one of the primary drivers behind the AT&T/T-Mobile deal and was a key talking point from both industry representatives like the CTIA’s Steve Largent and FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski: more spectrum needs to be opened up to the wireless industry to continue this growth.

What next: Ask the people at your carrier two or three times to show you exactly where their 4G coverage extends, and how fast their average–not peak–download and upload speeds are at the moment. There’s perhaps something to be said for future-proofing your phone or tablet, but it might be easier to wait until you know 4G coverage is strong in your area before taking the plunge.

And start thinking about things you can’t do on your mobile phone but can do on your PC because of the network connection, then figure out how to make them possible on a smaller screen with constrained battery life.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

Comments have been disabled for this post