Ask Maggie: On the 4G iPhone that isn't

This week's Ask Maggie explains why the iPhone 4 isn't a 4G smartphone and why it's not a good idea to use a wireless broadband service as your primary broadband connection.

Millions of iPhone customers may not care whether the new iPhone due out this fall will have 4G technology, since they already think their iPhone can access 4G networks.

A recent survey found that a third of iPhone users think they already have a 4G device. Sadly, the iPhone 4 is just another 3G smartphone. It doesn't even come equipped with technology to give it a speed boost on upgraded 3G networks.

In this week's Ask Maggie, I break the news to one reader who was hoping to experience 4G on his new unlocked iPhone 4. I also explain to another reader why it's not a good idea to use a wireless broadband service as your primary broadband connection for a laptop, especially when that service is capped at 4GB a month. And I offer some advice about prepaid voice options to another reader, who plans to use his phone on rare occasions.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

iPhone 4 vs. 4G

Dear Maggie,
I have an unlocked iPhone 4. I plan to use my new phone on T-Mobile. And I was wondering if I will have to pay extra for 4G service. I know other wireless operators' 4G wireless plans are sometimes $10 more than the regular 3G plans. Also, is T-Mobile's service real 4G?

Thanks,
Joe

Dear Joe,
I hate to break it to you, but the iPhone 4 is not a 4G phone. It is simply the fourth-generation iPhone that Apple has introduced. Since the day the device launched in June 2010, the number "4" added to the device's name has caused confusion.

In fact, a year ago when I interviewed people standing in line at the Apple flagship store in Manhattan waiting for their new iPhones , one man told me he was excited to get the new iPhone because it was 4G. I had to break the bad news to him as well.

Needless to say, you and the guy in line on Fifth Avenue last summer are not the only iPhone customers who have mistakenly believed that the iPhone 4 is a 4G device. In fact, a recent survey by the consumer electronics shopping site Retrevo found that 34 percent of iPhone owners in the U.S. believe they have a 4G smartphone. (But don't feel too bad about this. About 29 percent of Android users mistakenly believed their 3G Android phones were really 4G smartphones. And about 24 percent of BlackBerry customers surveyed also thought they had 4G devices.)

The truth is that Apple hasn't yet released a 4G smartphone. None of the existing iPhone models has the necessary hardware to support any of the so-called 4G technologies. Technically, none of the wireless networks in the U.S. is really 4G, but carriers have marketed different flavors of technology that offer faster speed connections as 4G. For example, Verizon Wireless says its LTE network is 4G. Sprint says its WiMax network is 4G. AT&T and T-Mobile have been marketing their HSPA+ networks as 4G.

Unfortunately, the iPhone 4 does not support any of these so-called 4G networks, so it can't benefit from the supposedly faster download speeds.

Some people have speculated that the next iPhone, which should hit the market this fall, will have LTE embedded in it . LTE is expected to be the most widely deployed next-generation wireless technology in the world.

But as I've mentioned in this column previously, I think that Apple will wait until next year to introduce an iPhone with LTE. And the reason is that there are still issues surrounding battery life with respect to 4G devices. What's more, Apple also waited a year before it put 3G technology into an iPhone. The first iPhone in 2007 operated on a 2.5G network. It wasn't until 2008 that it introduced the first 3G version of the iPhone.

That said, the new iPhone may use HSPA+. This technology is an extension of the HSPA chips that are already in the iPhone 4, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS phones. Theoretically, HSPA+ can offer much faster speeds than regular 3G service. T-Mobile has HSPA+ deployed throughout its network. It has no plans to build an LTE network. AT&T has HSPA+ deployed throughout its network, and it plans to launch its LTE network later this year.

Unfortunately, I have some more bad news for you. Not only is your unlocked iPhone 4 not a 4G device that could access either an LTE network or T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, but it also can't access T-Mobile's 3G network. And the reason is that T-Mobile and AT&T use different frequencies for their 3G wireless services. The iPhone 4 only includes radios that allow it to operate on AT&T"s 3G GSM network. When it's on T-Mobile's network, it will only operate on the 2.5G EDGE network.

Now to answer your other question. Is T-Mobile's HSPA+ network 4G? Well, honestly none of the so-called 4G networks meets the technical standard, which requires downloads of 100Mbps . But it is faster than most 3G networks, and it's sometimes comparable in performance to WiMax. LTE is still faster.

For customers who do have smartphones that support what T-Mobile considers 4G (HSPA+), there is no additional charge for the service. Subscribers can get unlimited voice, text, and up to 5GB of data per month for $90 a month.

As you alluded to in your question, the unlimited data service that Sprint Nextel offers costs $10 more a month for 4G devices, regardless of whether customers use the device on the 4G WiMax network. But T-Mobile does not charge extra for access to its 4G HSPA+ network.

Data splurge

Dear Maggie,
I have had a Droid 3 for less than a week. I'm using it as a hotspot for my laptop. And I've noticed that I've already used almost 2GB of data. I don't watch or download movies or songs (except a few YouTube songs a month). But I do sell stuff on eBay and surf the Net, primarily Facebook, my local newspaper, Gmail, and eBay.

I don't understand how I can be using this much data. But I am online for about 15 to 18 hours a day. I have an older laptop, use Chrome and XP, but I use tabbed browsing and leave about 10 tabs open all of the time. Would that cause me to use so much data? Should I just open one tab at a time?

I only have 4GB of data per month on my account. I can't afford more. But I live in a rural area with few options and the Droid has been my best solution for staying on the Net.

Do you have any suggestions? Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Ken

Dear Ken,
Wireless broadband service is not intended to be offered as a subscriber's only source of broadband. Instead, it's meant to be a supplement to some other form of broadband. Carriers don't want you sitting on their wireless network for 15 to 18 hours a day. The service is meant to give you on-the-go access to the Internet if you're traveling or you happen to not be at home or in your office. It's not intended to be your only source of broadband.

Unfortunately, in your case, it doesn't sound like there are a lot of options in terms of traditional DSL or cable modem broadband, let alone something more advanced like fiber-to-the home broadband.

The first thing is that you have to recognize that 15 to 18 hours of Internet usage on any network is a lot. Unless you are using your home Net connection for work, most people don't use their network connections consistently for that many hours a day. So you are already in some ways in a different class of user.

Secondly, you have to understand that laptops consume much more data than smartphones.

Cisco recently estimated that laptops eat through about 20 times the bandwidth than a typical smartphone uses. Why? For one, the screen on a laptop is much bigger. So it takes more bits to fill the screen with the graphics and information. Even if you are looking at the exact same Web page on a laptop versus a smartphone, the laptop version will use more bandwidth because the pictures are simply bigger. That said, some mobile sites are optimized for mobile, and they also use even less bandwidth. When you're accessing the Web via your Droid on your laptop, your computer only knows it's connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot. It doesn't know that the Wi-Fi is connected to a constrained 3G or even 4G connection.

Also your laptop has faster processors, so it's easier to access more bandwidth intensive Web sites from your laptop than it is on a typical smartphone.

Just to give you an idea of the difference in bandwidth consumption between a laptop and a smartphone, check out Verizon Wireless' data consumption calculator. If you type in that you send 50 e-mails a day and go to 50 Web sites a day each month on a smartphone, your average usage for a month would be about 590MB or 0.59GB. If you did this same thing on a laptop over a 3G wireless connection, you'd likely consume 1.48GB a month.

The biggest difference is in video. If you watch one hour of high-resolution video per month on your laptop, you'll likely consume about 10GB of data. By contrast, one hour of high-resolution video on a smartphone only consumes about 390MB or 0.39GB.

So what can you do to limit your broadband consumption? You could try installing an Opera Turbo browser on your laptop. The Opera Turbo browser compresses data in Web pages so that they load on your computer faster. But the compression can also help you conserve bandwidth. Keeping fewer tabs open while you're browsing could also help you limit your bandwidth usage.

The other option is to do more of your Web surfing on your smartphone, instead of on your laptop. As you can see from the examples I listed above, these activities consume much less bandwidth on the small screen than they do on the big screen.

In general, it's difficult to stay under these usage caps if you plan to use wireless broadband as your primary source of bandwidth. The only other option for you is to move to a higher tier of service, which will cost you more money. And that will be difficult on your budget. Verizon's 10GB wireless data plan is $80 a month.

This price is likely double the amount of money you'd spend for an average DSL service, which would likely not have any cap on usage. Even AT&T, which just introduced a DSL limit allows 150GB of usage per month, which is more than 10 times what you'd get with a 3G or 4G wireless broadband service from Verizon Wireless.

Still, I imagine for you, this is all about access. And if DSL or cable broadband service isn't available where you live, then unfortunately, you're a bit stuck. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful. Good luck.

Prepaid help for a light cell phone user

Dear Maggie,
After two years without, I am ready to go back to a cell phone. However, I rarely need one so I want a pay-per-day (like $2) to avoid a plan or a pre-pay plan that I might not use because the minutes expire too quickly. I saw such an animal a couple of months ago while researching and now...nada. I also travel a good bit. So I need something that I can take with me on the road. What do you suggest, oh wise and wonderful Maggie?!

Thanks,
Tony

Dear Tony,
There are $2-a-day plans that exist. In fact, Verizon Wireless offers such an option. You spend $2 and then that day you can make unlimited calls. This is an option for you if you really think you'd only use your phone a few days a month. Otherwise, the charge starts to add up.

Instead, I'd recommend the $100 prepaid option. In fact, this is the prepaid plan I put my dad on a couple of years ago. AT&T and Verizon each offer this option. What's good about the $100 plan is that the amount is good for one year. It allows a moderate amount of cell phone usage without trying to pack your phone calls into a single day to avoid being charged another $2. Also the $100 credit lasts for a year. So even if you don't use the entire $100, you're still paying less than $10 a month for a cell phone, which is way less than you'd spend on any other contract plan.

And if you need more usage, you can add more. Keep in mind the larger the amount you add to your account, the longer you have to use that money.

There are lots of other prepaid operators that may offer even cheaper deals than what AT&T or Verizon have. T-Mobile also offers some interesting deals. And Sprint's Virgin Mobile and Boost brands are also competitively priced. Tracfone is another prepaid offering that some people really like. There are also regional options like Leap Wireless' Cricket service and MetroPCS, which offer prepaid options.

But I single out AT&T and Verizon because I think they offer a decent value to occasional cell phone users. And I also like their services because their networks have the widest footprints. This means that if you travel for work or go on vacation in the U.S., your phone will still likely get service wherever you go.

Correction, 9:15 a.m. PT: This story initially misstated AT&T's DSL data usage cap. It is 150GB per month.

 

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