4G is a Travelers Best Non-Existent Friend

Should I start to look for a 4G smartphone?

It’s a question that travelers are beginning to ask, as the US and other parts of the world start to deploy ‘4G’ networks. I’ll try to cover the basics of where things stand today and what a traveler may expect in terms of data speeds in the years to come.


What’s 4G and how fast is it?

4G is essentially the fourth generation of the mobile data networks. It was originally defined as a wireless technology that allows up to 100Mbps of bandwidth to a user’s mobile device. The definition of 4G is a little loose in the US. Providers like AT&T and T-Mobile label an upgraded 3G technology (HSPA+) as a 4G service as a marketing ploy.

The ‘true’ 4G technology that mobile providers have started to deploy is called LTE and depending on the implementation it can reach speeds upwards of 100Mbps whereas current 3G networks reach up to 21Mbps (HSPA+).

The biggest difference between 3G and 4G though is probably the latency, something which heavily impacts Voice over IP (VoIP) quality. Current 3G networks, more often than not, don’t have a stable enough connection to support calls using VoIP services. 4G networks, however, can carry VoIP calls quite well, allowing a traveler to place a call using a cheaper service like Skype rather than the mobile provider’s standard (read: expensive) international calling rates.

Mobile tower


Does 4G support roaming?

It is not very hard to roam with older GSM 3G networks because they use a limited number of bands (or frequencies) – usually 850/900/1900/2100Mhz. Your average old quad-band phone can handle those with ease.

With LTE, however, there are far more bands. Wireless spectrum has become so scarce that governments worldwide have chosen whatever bands they can find without much national or international coordination. There are something like 35+ bands to be used, according to GSMA research group.

Even though most of the world’s carriers will be using the same 4G network technology, they’ll be using different bands, which make today’s one-band 4G phones incompatible with other networks. 4G phones will need to support a considerable number of bands to match the global roaming capability like our 3G quad-band phones do today.

This incompatibility is already causing problems for consumers and hardware vendors as they bring their device abroad. Apple had a quick run-in with this issue with their new iPad in Australia.


Should I consider buying an LTE phone?

There is a big push in the mobile phone industry to standardize the bands so that they can start producing roam-capable LTE phones, but that seems to be something for the distant future. It’s really too bad for the traveler because not having a 4G data network means no cheap mobile VoIP calls and a continued need for Wi-Fi hotspot hopping – some of which aren’t always free.

Fragmentation in 4G bands has all but destroyed the traveler’s chances of having a 4G phone that will work consistently abroad. It seems like 3G technologies like HSPA+ are here to stay for a long time.

When shopping for a smartphone in the next year or two, don’t use 4G LTE as a factor in your purchasing decision if you’re planning to travel. It won’t work once you leave your country and you’ll be bumped back down to 3G anyway.

Image via mikecogh


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