My last article concerning battery life for smartphones and 4G coverage generated a bit of controversy from a few readers. The bit that set some people off was my assertion that the newest iPhone (iPhone 4S) doesn’t support 4G speeds offered by AT&T, Verizon and others. The truth is that those readers were right. But since I write this column I get to declare that I am more right! Allow me to explain.
The phrase "4G" has become a major marketing term in wireless, but everyone defines it differently. The International Telecommunications Union started out by defining 4G as a set of technologies that nobody in the U.S. will have for several years. But as carriers defined 4G down, the ITU basically gave up.
So, no, the iPhone 4S does not support 4G. Not really. But AT&T is calling it that. If you have AT&T’s latest iPhone 4S and have been paying attention, you may have noticed that the little icon at the top of the status bar clearly says “4G.” The fact is that icon used to say “3G” but AT&T successfully begged Apple to allow AT&T phones to show a “4G” instead. So a software update earlier in March changed the little icon from “3G” to “4G.” So it is not really 4G but it is a bit faster than what Verizon is offering around here.
You see, when AT&T finally upgraded the towers all across North Alabama from Edge to 3G (technically called “HSPA”) technology a couple of years ago, they also included the technology they are calling “4G” (called “HSPA+). In other words, it’s “enhanced” 3G.” The update from Apple enabled the receiver in the iPhone 4S to “read” HSPA+ signals which is noticeably faster than the standard 3G so that’s why you have the 4G icon.
AT&T and other companies are implementing an even newer, much faster “4G” in bigger cities but even that “4G” doesn’t actually meet the specifications of “true” 4G service which is about 20 times faster than anything on the market right. In short, this talk of 4G everywhere is a ploy to motivate you to purchase a new phone that has slightly faster download speeds.
AT&T and Verizon are rolling out yet another version of 4G in select markets called “LTE.” Your iPhone 4S won’t access this “new” 4G. The upcoming iPhone 5 is expected to support 4G LTE but don’t look for that 4G service around here anytime soon. We are stuck with 3G no matter what they choose to call it.
To summarize: Your AT&T iPhone 4S now says 4G because that's exactly what it is: an HSPA+ device that runs on a "4G" network, even though the network is technically AT&T's 3G network, not the company's separate 4G LTE network. If you take your “4G” phone over to Huntsville and Decatur, your iPhone 4S will not use the new 4G LTE signals over there. You will still be stuck in the enhanced 3G that AT&T is calling 4G. Is that confusing or WHAT?