4G is the fourth generation of cellular technology network and data speeds – the number “4” denoting “fourth” and the letter “G” standing for “generation”. This generation offers greater data transfer speeds and increased bandwidth to enable much smoother and quicker routine mobile device usage. 4G is superior to mobile radio telephone (0G), 2G, and 3G in every possible aspect. Besides offering what 2G and 3G already do, 4G distinguishes itself with its enhanced security features and much improved Internet data transfer rates.

In theory, 4G data transfer speeds can touch a maximum of more than 300 Mbps. Realistic data speeds can touch 100 Mbps. This means, with a 4G device, web browsing on mobile devices (smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, etc.) is approximately six to seven times faster (or even more) than 3G. Online video calling is real-time, with no lag in communication. Downloading apps, podcasts, web surfing, etc. are noticeably faster too.

History/ Beginnings and Compatibility

4G connectivity and data standards were first set in March 2008 by International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R). These standards are referred to as IMT-A (IMT-Advanced), which is ITU’s official 4G mobile telephony term. As per these standards, data speeds must touch 100 Mbps for mobile devices (for instance, smartphones and tablet computers) and a minimum of 1 Gbps for stationary uses like mobile hotspots.

Also, the networks should be based on packet switching technology and not circuit switching. Packet switching is a data transmission mode wherein the communicated message is broken into multiple parts and each part is sent across independently as small packets over the optimum routes available. Circuit switching does not indulge in such partitioning.

4G first graced devices in 2009 in Oslo and Stockholm. The United Kingdom saw a nationwide rollout in 2014. Most major cities in the United States now (August 2016) have 4G. 4G data services work only on those devices that are specifically built to take advantage of 4G. The first 4G smartphone was the HTC Evo (2010).

Also, some 4G devices work only in specific regions or countries since the 4G frequency bands could vary. For example, a device that works on Australian 4G connection may not connect to 4G on U.S. networks. Similar to 3G, 4G is backward compatible too – meaning it supports both 3G and 2G and previous cellular technology iterations. For example, if there’s no 4G network available, the device could use 3G.

4G Formats

4G network standards can be achieved either through Long Term Evolution (LTE) or Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX). When 4G was first commercially released, the connection speeds weren’t doing justice to IMT-A or the ITU-R 4G standards. In other words, offering real 4G speeds was almost impossible for most service providers. LTE and WiMAX are connectivity standards that service providers use to market their connection as 4G despite the speeds offered not being close to 4G standards. LTE/WiMAX can be called 3.75G.

WiMAX is not as widespread as LTE and is slowly being phased out to be replaced by LTE. There are several reasons why WiMAX is not as widespread as LTE. LTE offers much higher maximum speeds compared to WiMAX. WiMAX download speeds are usually close to 6 Mbps (in theory), while LTE peaks at 100 Mbps. Also, LTE is light on mobile phone battery usage. WiMAX requires a freshly built network whereas LTE is a CDMA/HSPA network evolution.

4G Speeds

4G is much faster than 3G because it uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM), which is the technology used in ADSL broadband, Wi-Fi, digital radio and digital television. OFDM helps increase the network’s capacity by splitting the data and sending them as small chunks in parallel, resulting in reduced interference and the ability to send more data at once. Multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) is also a reason why 4G is so fast. The technology uses several antenna arrays both at the receiver and transmitter to enhance communication performance. In other words, more data could be transferred without needing increased bandwidth or more power.  

As mentioned earlier, 4G theoretically is supposed to offer a maximum of more than 300 Mbps. Real 4G speeds, however, can be much lower. Generally, realistic 4G speeds tend to hover near the 24 Mbps mark, which is approximately 75 percent lower than the claimed real-world speed of 100 Mbps. But not many people seem to complain since those speeds are still way better than most 3G or broadband lines could offer before 4G happened. Just like 3G, 4G speeds depend on multiple factors such as the 4G device, network location, and service provider.

4G Limitations

4G is not as widespread as 3G (as of August 2016) and there are several regions that are still devoid of 4G. And in countries where there’s 4G connectivity, users may experience random service drops or disconnections. In such scenarios, they may have to make do with 3G, which activates as soon as the 4G signal becomes weak or drops. However, the disappointing part (in most cases) is customers getting charged 4G rates for having used makeshift 3G services.

As aforementioned, 4G needs specific hardware to function. This means consumers will have to buy a new mobile device if their existing device is not 4G compatible. Since not all users will upgrade to a new smartphone or tablet computer just for 4G, service providers may have to wait till the upgrade happens. Also, 4G devices have poor battery lives since the network needs multiple transmitters and antennas for efficient functioning.