What Is 4G Wireless?

This cellular service is 10 times faster than the old 3G service

A sprinting cheetah speeds through an office

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4G wireless is the term used to describe the fourth-generation of wireless cellular service. 4G is a big step up from 3G service and is up to 10 times faster than 3G service. Sprint was the first carrier to offer 4G speeds in the United States beginning in 2009. Now all the carriers offer 4G service in most areas of the country, although some rural areas still have only the slower 3G coverage.

Why 4G Speed Matters

As smartphones and tablets developed the capability to stream video and music, the need for consistent and sustained data bandwidth grew in tandem.

Previously, cellular speeds were much slower than those offered by high-speed broadband connections to computers — given that most cellular data focused on mobile-optimized browsers and very simple apps, they didn't need large data pipes.

4G speed compares favorably with some broadband options and is particularly useful in areas without broadband connections.

4G Technology

While all 4G service is called 4G or 4G LTE, the underlying technology is not the same with every carrier. Some use WiMax technology for their 4G network, while Verizon Wireless uses a technology called Long Term Evolution, or LTE.

Sprint says its 4G WiMax network offers download speeds that are ten times faster than a 3G connection, with speeds that top out at 10 megabits per second. Verizon's LTE network delivers download speeds between 5 Mbps and 12 Mbps. T-Mobile's varies between 7 Mbps and 40 Mbps.

Don't let speed thresholds fool you. The download speed is a function of the device's hardware capability, the congestion of the nearest tower, the nature of the data, and the location of the tower relative to the device. Very few people consistently receive top-end performance.

What Comes Next?

5G comes next, of course. Before you know it, the companies touting WiMax and LTE networks will be talking about IMT-Advanced technology, which will deliver 5G speeds. The technology is expected to be faster, have fewer dead zones, and end data caps on cellular contracts. The rollout will probably begin in large urban areas.