Will 4G Phones Change the Mobile Web Forever?

Verizon’s (s vz) first 4G handset, the HTC ThunderBolt, is available today and already the first real-world speed tests are coming in. Although there are relatively few LTE subscribers as compared to those on traditional 3G networks, the bandwidth numbers are impressive, both when using the phone for typical use and also as a connection for laptops. For the moment though, there are few smartphone uses for 12 Mbps outside of video, which suggests speedy 4G phone customers are more likely to add the wireless hotspot service to their handset data plan. But over the long term, could the adoption of 4G eventually shift web developers away from lighter, mobile friendly sites?

Laptop Magazine offers some early results of the ThunderBolt’s actual 4G performance. Standard speed tests on the phone yield download speeds between 4 and 13.8 Mbps. That helps the fairly heavy ESPN website (s dis) to load in about four seconds; by comparison, on a 3G connection, it took me about 22 seconds to open the same website this morning. Without a doubt, the extra wireless speeds will be welcome on a smartphone. But the mobile web has moved toward lighter sites that are more mobile friendly and load faster. In the case of ESPN, changing over to the mobile version of the site offers less data on the screen, but drops the load time to a bearable 6 seconds in my tests.

Why do we even have such mobile versions of sites? The obvious answer is two-fold: First, sites designed for the smaller handset screens of handsets are easier to interact with, and second, traditional desktop versions of websites take too long to load on a 2G or 3G connection. However, modern smartphone browsers have improved the web experience thanks to intuitive zooming controls, so there’s less usability need for a stripped down, mobile version of a site. And now that devices can download the desktop version of a website in just a few seconds on an advanced mobile broadband network, the second reason for mobile site versions diminishes as well. Sure, we’re just now getting started with LTE in the U.S. with our first phone to support it, so the mobile-friendly web isn’t going away anytime soon. It will take years of additional smartphone adoption and network expansion before we see a decline in mobile sites.

It won’t take years to see consumers adopt wireless hotspot plans for the phones that have 4G capabilities, however. The real need for speed comes with a larger display where more content is created and a higher quality of content is consumed. For this reason, I’d be curious to see how many Verizon customers who purchase the ThunderBolt add the $20 wireless hotspot plan to their monthly contract. It’s rather clever of Verizon to offer the feature free through May 15 as well; it’s almost like that first free hit to get you addicted as a paying customer later.

So how does the ThunderBolt work with a laptop? When used as a USB modem, Laptop Mag saw the ThunderBolt deliver download speeds near 20 Mbps on a laptop, while uploads peaked near 5 Mbps. Losing the cable and sharing the connection over Wi-Fi slowed things up, but bandwidth testing still peaked at 14 Mbps. Such speeds are ideally suited for streaming video or downloading large work attachments, for example. I’d argue that they’re actually better suited for the laptop today. Do we really need 20 Mbps connections for Facebook status, Twitter use, email, connected smartphone apps or the other traditional smartphone uses? That last bit may be most telling: With more bandwidth available, the current “traditional” smartphone uses may look very different in the future.

Faster mobile broadband is welcome, no matter what the device or activity, but the launch of the first LTE handset could be the final snowflake that starts a slow and lengthy avalanche of change for what the mobile web looks like and how we access it.

Image credit: Laptop Magazine