Hi all,

4G service is still very spotty, yet if you have a 4G phone expect to pay extra, even if you can't get a 4G signal! Take care,

Jay

Spotty 4G service disappoints South Florida smartphone users
BY BRIDGET CAREY,bcarey@MiamiHerald.com, Posted on Mon, Dec. 20, 2010


Spotty 4G service disappoints South Florida smartphone users - 12/20/2010 | MiamiHerald.com

In the wireless world, 4G is a touchy subject.
Carriers including Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have peppered the airwaves with ads boasting their fast download speeds for South Florida customers.

But with limited availability in some areas, technical glitches during launch and critics who say not all 4G technology is worthy of that title, there are numerous customers -- such as Elvin Candelario of Homestead -- who just wish it worked.

Candelario and his wife are early adopters of Sprint's 4G network, which launched Nov. 29 for South Florida. They're each paying an extra $10 a month for the privilege of having smartphones that can access 4G speeds.

Problem is, Homestead isn't among the few areas in South Florida that get the service.

``When you do get 4G, it's awesome,'' said Candelario, 34, who can access 4G speeds when he goes to work in Hallandale Beach. ``I'm kind of upset, but I have no choice. . . . I feel like they over promised.''

The fourth generation of wireless data speeds -- called 4G -- is five to 10 times faster than the current widespread network speeds the majority of phones use today. The biggest benefit comes to users who are downloading and sending videos, or engaging in the latest smartphone fad: video chatting.

Currently, only Sprint and T-Mobile offer smartphone 4G access in South Florida. But as each carrier races to build its own 4G network, consumers are finding that these super high-speed networks aren't ready to deliver on all their promises.

``I'd call it start-up jitters,'' said Andrea Goldsmith, professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University and advisor to 4G provider Sequans Communications. Goldsmith spoke about the future of wireless technology in Miami this month during the Globecom Conference. She said it's not that the technology wasn't tested properly, but rather the carriers don't know what the user behavior demands are until it's launched.

``We saw the iPhone brought 3G networks to their knees because people want video, they want high-speed data, they want instant access to the Internet, and 3G networks are not capable of supporting that for a large number of users,'' Goldsmith said. ``So it's almost like the networks are killed by their own success.''

Since Sprint officially announced 4G had arrived in South Florida, customers using its popular HTC Evo and Samsung Epic phones have voiced complaints to The Miami Herald of not being able to get 4G speeds consistently.

``That won't be the case a month or two from now,'' said Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis. She said the company is making adjustments to improve the network over time, and the size of South Florida makes it difficult to launch it perfectly all at once.

``I know that's hard to swallow,'' Davis said.

One factor in the race for speed is the technology underlying each carrier's service: Sprint uses WiMAX, Verizon uses LTE, and T-Mobile uses HSPA+. AT&T will eventually use LTE when it launches 4G next year.

The jargon of who-uses-what doesn't mean much to consumers, other than they'll have to be patient as each carrier works to build out its own separate network.

Today, phones with 3G typically can download around 1 megabyte of data per a second on a good day, but 4G can boost that to 5 megabytes -- sometimes as high as 10 or 12 megabytes depending on factors like the weather, how many other users are in the area, and the distance from the tower.

But is one 4G better than another?

``They're all about the same,'' said Mike Geekas, senior editor for mobile electronics at Consumer Reports.

T-Mobile -- which introduced its high speed-service locally in August -- has faced attacks from competitors and critics who say its network is more 3.5G than 4G because HSPA+ doesn't have the capability to reach speeds of WiMAX and LTE technology. The company has dismissed the criticism, saying that its network offers speeds that match what others can deliver.

But regardless of the technical nitpicking, Geekas said consumers won't notice a difference -- at least for now.

``It doesn't matter what they call it, the bottom line is what T-Mobile offers seems to be as good as what Sprint offers,'' Geekas said.

Only Sprint and T-Mobile currently have smartphones that can use these 4G speeds. Verizon's newly released 4G network currently is available only for laptops, though the company is expected to announce a phone that can use 4G in January.

Early tests on Verizon's 4G rival the download speeds of the competition, reaching between 5 and 12 megabytes a second. But the service is expensive, say critics; just two hours of downloads can burn through the data allotment in a standard monthly plan.

But it's not just the four big carriers that are selling 4G wirelessly. Clearwire, a wireless high speed service provider, built the 4G WiMAX network that Sprint and Comcast both sell. Clearwire also sells its own connection through the company name Clear, and has said it plans to eventually launch its own smartphone.

As carriers continue to test the technology, they also are testing whether consumers will pay a premium for it, ditching the flat-rate unlimited data options.

``If you go to an all you can eat smorgasbord, you're going to eat a lot more than you would if you were paying for every dish,'' Goldsmith said. That's what happened to carriers who struggled to keep up with demand on 3G networks.

Now those companies have realized they need to charge higher rates for higher use.

Supporting high speed data transfers -- such as downloads and e-mail -- is much more expensive than to supporting voice calls. AT&T has stopped offering unlimited data packages for smartphone users, and Verizon announced it will eventually also end unlimited data packages.

Sprint's CEO Dan Hesse has said that it might have to follow suit if demand gets overwhelming. It currently has an unlimited plan but charges $10 more a month for phones that can access its 4G network.

``You would think `Oh they should be making money hand-over-fist, but they're not because of the pricing structure,'' Goldsmith said.

Time will determine when carriers find the ``happy medium'' pricing level. But for now, users like Joe Giuliano of Fort Lauderdale will pay more to be one of the guinea pigs. He bought an Evo three weeks ago and said he's disappointed about not getting 4G around the beach or at the Galleria Mall.

But as for paying more just to have a phone that can access it eventually: ``I'm OK with it, I'm used to paying a lot for stuff,'' Giuliano said. ``It's an early adopter thing.''