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Think 4G is 10 times faster? Think again

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We’ve all heard the commercials and seen the ads. The major cellular carriers are rolling out their shiny new 4G networks, and they’re promising speeds “up to 10 times faster” than regular 3G networks. They also toss the term “LTE” around as if it were going out of style.

Cellular marketing hype has only added to the confusion. For instance, Apple’s iOS 5.1 update changed a descriptive label in the iPhone 4S UI from 3G to 4G, and nobody is quite sure if it means anything.

For most people, 4G feels a little faster, but not anything close to the 10 times we were promised. With all the misinformation emanating from the industry, it’s about time that we brought a dose of reality to the conversation.

A few years ago, I was leading a startup that was building a collaboration application in New Zealand. The load times for the app were so slow that the app was unusable, and the issue threatened the viability of the company itself. After digging into the problem we found that networks were performing as well as they could, and we had to find another way to speed up the app.

Ultimately, we built a solution that optimized the content itself for better performance, rather than focusing on network and hardware acceleration. The result was so effective that we started a new company, Aptimize, just to sell the acceleration software. We realized at the time that everyone was focusing on networks, but the real problem was the content traveling over those networks.

And today, that’s precisely the area where we can make the largest performance gains — content optimization. All this content — from Twitter share buttons to Facebook Like buttons all the way down to images and videos, new analytics packages, interactive ads and third-party comment systems — has made websites so obese that the networks can’t keep up.

Back to reality, oh there goes gravity

If 4G were legitimately 10 times faster than 3G, I’d never have to buy another phone to keep up with technological advances again.

Think I’m kidding?

Let’s say a site loads in 7 seconds on your iPhone over 3G. That means the site should load in less than a second over 4G every time, right?


In real-world use cases, the promise of 4G is almost never a reality. The network itself is absolutely capable of performing 10 times faster than 3G networks. That part is true.

But Web performance isn’t that simple. There is a huge delta between pure science in a lab and the real world.

The cellular network, or your ISP’s local network, is a fraction of the infrastructure and services that it takes to get sites to load in your browser. In fact, the network that your device connects to is the last mile in the Web performance continuum.

It’s not the second-to-last mile. It’s dead last.

While we’re all excited about the arrival of 4G speeds, consumers need to realize that 4G can also deliver speeds up to 10 times slower than 3G, or dial-up, depending on real-world variables.

One major difference between 4G and 3G is that a 4G network is all IP-based, so it passes information between phone and carrier exactly the same way as a Web browser communicates with the Internet. 4G also boasts an increase in theoretical maximum throughput from 14.4 Mbps (mega bits per second) to 100 Mbps or more.

But theoretical maximums are like the theoretical miles-per-gallon on a new car. They’re nothing like what you experience day to day. In the real world, a 4G network delivers maybe three to five Mbps, and 3G networks two to three Mbps. This is due to distance from the cell tower, interference from walls and objects, and people moving while using their device — real world things.

Carriers have been fine-tuning their 3G networks to account for these real-world variables for years. Because 4G is newer, it hasn’t had anywhere near this much tuning yet.

In addition, the “throughput” is not your connection to everything on the Internet, as might be assumed. It is actually your connection to the carrier. These are two different things. Most of us aren’t going to buy a 4G phone so we can access AT&T’s data center faster. Instead, we want increased speed while we do real things on the Internet.

Try a test: the average Web page is about 500 KB in size. If a 4G network is operating at 100 Mbps, the Web page should download to your phone in four-hundredths of a second. That’s about the time it takes to blink (500 KB is four megabits and in theory the network is operating at 100 megabits per second).

You don’t need a stopwatch to know that this is almost never the case.

Keep your eyes on the ball

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about 4G marketing is that it causes otherwise intelligent people to ignore logic and reason.

Even worse, we’ve been through this before. Back when content delivery networks (CDN) were the hot new technology, we put all of our Web performance eggs in that one basket. We behaved as if they were going to save the Web and usher in a new era of light speed connections. Similarly, as server hardware grew in both processing power and affordability, we assumed that Web performance was finally solved.

All of these technologies are important, and any time we make an advance in one area, we need to remind ourselves we’re not done yet. We need to collectively refocus our attention on a holistic view of performance, so we can make progress that outpaces any single breakthrough. This is the only solution.

Below is a breakdown of the various components that exist between the server hosting a website and your device that affect how fast a site might load:

The Web performance continuum

Whenever you access a website, or download an app, the request gets routed through an array of computers and services all working together. Loading a Web page doesn’t just access the array once, there are literally 50 or more requests that go backwards and forwards. Any speed problems get amplified when you’re dealing with this quantity.

One of the biggest determinants of how fast this works is not the client, gateway or Web services, but the connections between them — how fast the pieces can talk to each other. This is often known as latency — high latency means a slow connection. Latency is higher for wireless connections (WiFi or cellphones) and grows with distance. The further away you are physically from the website, the longer it takes to load.

Your upgrade to a 4G phone, or high-speed Internet only affects the connection between you and the gateway. If the bottleneck is somewhere else in the system (it often is), then the website will load at the speed of the slowest part of the network. It’s like driving to work. No matter how well paved your driveway is, a traffic jam will still slow you down.

Don’t just tap the piñata 

When you hit a piñata, you don’t just tap it. You hack at it as hard as you can, and you aim for the spots that were already weakened by other people’s blows.

My point?

When it comes to Web performance, you need to invest in the areas that have the highest likelihood for significant returns. The networks are already fast enough. We need to find other areas that promise more return on performance investments.

By using techniques such as compression, HTTP request merging and dynamic layout effects to optimize content, we can make vast improvements in real-world speeds and load times. The opportunity in this area of acceleration can return as much as 40 to 50 percent improvements in load times.

Sure, that’s not 10 times, but it works in the real world. And unlike the claims the 4G guys are plastering on billboards, it’s a promise we can believe in.

Ed Robinson is the general manager of Web content optimization at Riverbed Technology. He was the co-founder of Aptimize, a web acceleration company that was acquired by Riverbed in 2011.

Some rights reserved by vinaykr.

30 Responses to “Think 4G is 10 times faster? Think again”

  1. Lightning Joe

    Really, don’t you guys know what the words “up to” mean?

    The simple version: When a retailer uses those words, it means that you MIGHT experience what the words lead up to, in other words, you MIGHT, SOMEHOW, experience ten times the speed, but get this:


    THAT, in point of fact is WHY they use those words. Using them ENSURES 1) that many consumers will fall into their trap of EXPECTING that performance (and therefore will buy the product), and 2) that if and when they object that the product did not live up to the hype, there will be NO legal recourse available.

    HYPE. THAT is what the words “up to” are. Only HYPE.

    Get it. Remember it. NEVER fall for it again!

  2. Bandwidth does not equal speed. Speed is latency. You can increase bandwidth all you like but unless you can decrease the latency you haven’t done anything about the speed. Increased bandwidth means you can download more in a certain time period, but that doesn’t necessary correlate with better response times from a user perspective.

    If someone could just increase the speed of light, we’d all be much happier :)

  3. Perhaps 4G is 10 times faster than 3G in the laboratory, but there is so many components to mobile performance and it is all dependent on context; what user, what app, what network, what day, what time, payload, etc… So stating “faster” overall speed even cannot be claimed if you increased the speed of one component (of the network) which was not the bottleneck in the first place. And now we have the throttling issues by the carriers. So comes down to your own requirements and testing it yourself for your own situation.

  4. Tino G.

    try skyping or streaming netflix using 3g, then come tell me 4g isn’t 10 times faster, who cares about just loading webpages? compare the applications that can actually use the extra bandwidth

  5. Mike Labbe

    I get 28-30MB speedtest results with Verizon LTE 4G on my Droid Bionic. That’s actually much greater than 10x faster their 3G speed. I think the confusion comes in because carriers are dishonest. ATT recently “renamed” their enhanced 3G service to “4G”. (While simultaneously rolling out true 4G LTE service – 5 cities so far?) They are advertising the largest 4G network in USA, which is actually the honor Verizon currently has. Sprint is also doing the same and dropping their WiMax in favor of 4G LTE, but that starts in mid 2012.
    Apple is also guilty of this (lying), by changing the description of theirs from 3G to 4G. Their first 4G (LTE) capable phone will be the iphone 5, which isn’t out yet. The third generation ipad has the real 4G. LTE based android phones have been readily available for about 15 months now.
    There’s a whole lotta snake out salesmen out there, IMO :) The LTE standard is indeed very fast, though, if you are really on it. (and not a slower technology labelled as “4G”)

    • Sorry guy. Even if marketing guys are trying to rebrand LTE as 4g or even 5g, LTE is stil the ultimate stage of 3G (LTE = UMTS LTE, meaning the ultimate evolution of 3G). this os why LTE is not a so huge gap in europe for instance. 4G used to be WiMax, but it failed. Then we are all waiting for a true 5G wireless ethernet ;-)

  6. VladimirPoopen

    Jeff and oddmyth are right. Downloading a file at a sustained 10mbps vs a 3G sub 1mbps connection is a huge difference. Take a look at uploads too and specifically, video streaming. A teradek cube over 4G I can trust. Over 3G? I”ll stick to wired ethernet (which means not as mobile).

  7. Ed Robinson

    Eli and Stephen: its great you’re getting 20-30 Mbps on your phones. However, that doesn’t translate to your online experience being 10x faster. On our phones everyone still spends more time “waiting” than “doing”.

  8. Batman

    This is not phone-related, persay, but an internet speed observation of my own.

    I’m in Canada, and with Rogers. What they appear to be doing (and I never had any issues with Bell, myself) is the following:

    I’ll signup with them at their “Extreme” package or whatever it was (the fastest one they had at the time), and it starts out super fast, no issues – blazing internet speeds, upload/download, streaming video, etc. And I’m a tech/computer/web guy, so my computer is in immaculate shape (no viruses/malware, defragged, the works) before that is questioned. Everything goes along great, but after about 6 months things start gradually slowing down; at first you don’t really notice, but after several weeks you start to catch on. Give them a call, but they have nothing to say than to upgrade to their “new, even FASTER package”. I say “no” naturally, as my package was originally faster than one even needs (if that’s possible; I could download a 10MB file in 10 seconds, sort of fast), so there’s no reason that I should EVER have to upgrade.

    Now, it’s been about 2 years and my internet connection is at a stand still. Again, I call in and all they want to do is upsell me to the latest package.

    So, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’re throttling older service packages to frustrate the end-user into upgrading into a more expensive package, where they’ll just do the same to you in another 2 years.

    I’ve had Rogers on several different occasions in my life, one being about 10 years ago, and this would happen every time. My broadband internet 10 years was faster than it currently is today.

    Such a blatant scam. I don’t even surf the web on my phone, so I cannot attest to this article directly. I find looking at such a tiny screen and trying to navigate with my fat thumbs just too frustrating.

  9. Eric Youle

    To quote C. Northcote Parkinson Expenditures rise to meet income. Inevitably increase in performance, network, cpu, storage etc etc, is consumed by increase demands. Increased capability only allows increased complexity, quality, its unlikely to stop, so long as the deliverable performance is half way reasonable. Australia is rolling out a very expensive fiber option network, to every house (NBN) will deliver blinding speed, but people don;t recognize that its not the speed of the last mile which is important. I do periodic speed test, and finf that so long as I restrict myself to within Australia the performance I get is c;ose to the ADSL2 limit. Go out side Australia and its mostly nowhere near, typically half the available bandwidth.

  10. The first mistake with 4G “branding” is that it’s not the 4th gen of mobile at all.. It’s just LTE (meaning 3G Long Term Evolution), and all the 3G networks have already evolved. This means that a 3G mature network is already a nearly LTE one… The gap is then much lowered. The main difference with 4G would reside in the capability to aggregate channels, if ever the spectrum bandwidth was larger, wich is not the case… Then… wait for 5G ;-)

  11. Nicholas

    It is ironic that one of the sites I visit most, is also one of the worst designed from a data perspective. Dear Gigaom, please clean this place up!

  12. Warren Whitlock

    speed ratings should not have to be felt. There are objective tests that measure the claims carriers make so that’s easy to debunk.

    The other things mentioned here are real.. but when it comes to downloading a file, watching a video, etc. download speed is all that counts.

  13. Eli Ervin

    My Droid Bionic gets 20-30 mbps all the time on verizon. that might not be 10 x but that’s definitely more than what you have posted

  14. HildyJ

    Having worked in telecom in the old POTS days, I would guess that cell towers send requests to a collection point. Could the overall process be speeded up by having a DNS database replicated at each of these points so DNS lookup could be done locally?

  15. Stephen

    On my 4G LTE LG Revolution on Verizon, living in the SF Bay Area, and using the app… I get 28mbps download and 24mbps upload. I’d say that’s 10 times faster.

  16. Ed Robinson

    pcvip, you’re right – the rendering issues are a common bottleneck. Most consumers don’t understand this, nor should they have to – they see 10x speeds and think its the only solution they need. Ed

  17. mattboston

    When are software programmers going to stop blaming the networks and hardware when their app doesn’t perform as fast as it should and learn to optimize their code. Being an Ops guy it always amazes me when I see the sloppy code that they’re putting out.

  18. The download speeds absolutely are 10c better. Upload even more so. The question is what you are using your connection for. In my experience the bottlenecks come from rendering issues