The State of Mobile Broadband [2011]

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“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.

– Bill Gates

 

The internet.

Depending on who you are, how old you are and what you do for a living, the internet may mean drastically different things to you.

If you’re one of the recreational vehicle (RV) owners that frequent this site, then the internet is the low cost way you keep in touch with loved ones on the road, find the best gas prices, or map your next great adventure across the United States.

If you’re one of the truck drivers that stop in, then the internet might mean a break from the stresses of a driving through Atlanta when the entire interstate was frozen over, mapping routes for hazardous accidents on the road ahead or shopping on Amazon for a birthday present for family or friends when you grab a spare moment.

Maybe you’re a small business owner comparing the convenience and cost of (wireless) mobile broadband versus wired broadband for your dedicated team that needs to get reliable information to clients at a moment’s notice because that’s what makes or breaks the sale.

Maybe you’re a mobile broadband aficionado who likes to stay on top of the latest and greatest cutting edge technology because being in the know not only feels good, it gives you an edge up on everyone else.

Maybe you’re a mobile knowledge worker whose work doesn’t even require you to be at a desk but rather anywhere you can "get ‘er done" with the quality of work only you can provide.

No matter who you are, the internet has a profound effect on your life. The very fact that you’re sitting and reading this with me now proves that. Like the printing press in its time, the internet has and will continue to alter  the way we communicate (i.e. the exchange of ideas and information).

The speed of that communication is governed largely by the technology available to us.

 

So, Where Are We Now?

The cusp of major change. I’ll explain the magnitude of that and what it means to you shortly. First though, we need a bit of the back story.

 

3G

The term broadband (and by inference mobile broadband) has never been defined although the term is widely used (heck, its practically the name of this site right?). If the speed that counts as broadband were defined, then telecom companies would have to be held accountable.

Accountability = Cost.

Cost = Lower Profit.

Lower Profit = Chicken little screaming "The SKY IS FALLING!!!"

You get my point.

For all intent and purposes, broadband speed are speeds faster than dialup internet (not very impressive I know). Mobile broadband service, by and large is provided by the major telecom companies:

1. AT&T

2. Sprint

3. Verizon

4. T-Mobile

While you have smaller companies with a regional footprint such as U.S. Cellular, prepaid mobile broadband and mobile broadband rental resellers, the national mobile broadband arena is dominated by these 4 guys.

Comcast and CLEAR are not included because they’re partners with Sprint and all use the same 4G network. As far as networks go, they’re all practically the same company just rebranding the same service.

Up until very recently, the mobile broadband race was at a stand still. The big 4 all had 3G coverage and resorted to "fastest mobile broadband" vs. "the most reliable network" vs. "the best coverage" vs. devouring each other (read: Alltel) and yada yada yada.

But then on came along…

 

4G

Like mobile broadband, the definition of 4G changes based on who you ask.

The International Telecommunications Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R, say that three times fast), defines 4G as "a cellular system that must have target peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbps for a high mobility connection (read: mobile broadband) and 1 Gbps for low mobility (think: wireless Clear 4G modems that don’t move too much).

With that being said, no U.S. provider offers true 4G service.

As it currently stands 4G is just a marketing term. While Sprint and Verizon technically have networks capable of those speeds, what they currently offer is nowhere near that.

 

Sprint

Sprint, averaging 3-6 Mbps downloading with a peak of 10 Mbps (and 1 Mbps uploading) figured, hey, our stuff is the fastest gang in town right now so let’s call it 4G. Reaching 110 million in 74 cities, they’ve got a decent sized 4G WiMAX footprint and have been in the game for 2 years.

 

T-Mobile

Not to be left out, T-Mobile, through a smart technological slight of hand is able to provide peak speeds of 21 Mbps and thus compete with the speeds Sprint and Verizon offer using 3G technology and so also said "hey, let’s call ours 4G too!" about halfway through 2010.

 

Verizon

Verizon, averaging 5-12 Mbps downloading and upload speeds of 2-5 Mbps not to be left out branded their next generation network as 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution). LTE, the underlying technology bares similarities as well as differences to WiMAX, Sprint’s underlying technology but that’s a topic for another time. The more interesting stuff is this:

Real world tests have seen Verizon LTE bursts of speed up to 33 Mbps (MSNBC) and regularly in the range of 18 Mbps during my own testing. However, that’s still not even close to half of 100 Mbps.

Verizon, although recently launched in December 2010, already cover 38 markets (i.e. cities) and 60 major airports. Plans are underway to cover 200 million people by the end of 2011 (almost the size of their current 3G network) and the entire nation with more 4G coverage than 3G coverage by the end of 2013.

 

AT&T

AT&T? Not quite the "fastest network" anymore. They have yet to launch their LTE network. When they do, expect speeds similar to Verizon’s network.

Update:

AT&T has faster speeds of 6 Mbps that can compete with "T-Mobile 4G" and "Sprint 4G" thanks to an HSPA+, a software upgrade to existing 3G technology also employed by T-Mobile.

Upload speeds, with the exception of Motorola Atrix users, are also comparable at speeds up to 1 Mbps.

AT&T 4G Speed | 2011 Mobile Broadband Review

 

Is the "4G" being marketed faster than 3G? Without a doubt. Is it really 4G?

No. No it’s not.

There’s something interesting happening though. You see, 4G technology has caught the eye of the President.

 

The National Wireless Initiative

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The President hinted at it in the State of the Union address, followed up with more detail at Northern Michigan University and most importantly, with the specificity that really matters to mobile broadband aficionados in the following fact sheet:

Nearly Double Wireless Spectrum Available for Mobile Broadband:  The President has set the goal of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for everything from smartphones to wireless broadband connectivity for laptops to new forms of machine-to-machine communication within a decade.

Provide At Least 98% of Americans with Access to 4G High-Speed Wireless:  Private investments are extending 4G to most of the Nation, but leaving some rural areas behind.  The President’s initiative would support a one-time investment of $5 billion and reform of the “Universal Service Fund” to ensure millions more Americans will be able to use this technology.

Catalyze Innovation Through a Wireless Innovation (WIN):  To spur innovation, $3 billion of the spectrum proceeds will go to research and development of emerging wireless technologies and applications.

Develop and Deploy a Nationwide, Interoperable Wireless Network for Public Safety: The President’s Budget calls for a $10.7 billion commitment to support the development and deployment of a nationwide wireless broadband network to afford public safety agencies with far greater levels of effectiveness and interoperability.  An important element of this plan is the reallocation of the D Block for public safety and $500 million within the WIN Fund.

 

Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, summarizes this in less than 4 minutes here:

In this White House White Board Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, explains the National Wireless Initiative.

 

Here’s What It Really Means For You

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Within the next 5 years we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless to 98% of all Americans. This isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.

It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.

It’s about a fire fighter who’ll be able to download a design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

State of The Union 2011: Winning The Future

If you live in a rural area you will have the option of 4G LTE technology. 

Every angry frustrated conversation you’ve had with a 3G carrier about poor service and having to use external antennas to improve signals will come to an end.

The same goes for satellite broadband users who have had to play internet usage hop-scotch to schedule their downloads in ‘off-peak’ times. You will have the option of 4G that far surpasses the speed and reliability of what you’ve got now at a fraction of the cost.

If you live in an urban area but travel, you will have 4G coverage to all remote areas of the country you go to.

That means no downtime if traveling by rail or by car in addition to having access at your actual destination.

No more ridiculously price gorging eye popping fees to hotels for one night of internet use.

A realistic and viable option to wired cable and DSL internet.

 

There’s a Pink Elephant in The Room

And his name is Mr. Data Caps among others aliases.

As exciting as the prospect of true nationwide 4G coverage is, no one’s talking about the conspicuous pink elephant. There are still unanswered questions:

 

Will we still be stuck with 5 GB, 8 GB, 10 GB or even higher GB caps?

Since the government is providing incentives to carriers to pull off the 4G build out (read: they have much less say in the regulation of it), it will be at the carriers’ discretion how much they charge for access and under what pricing structure (e.g. GB usage as well as overage fees/rates)

 

When will this nationwide coverage be rolled out?

Verizon expects to have it done by 2013 and so far they’ve been aggressively rolling out more markets ahead of schedule. With a government subsidy, it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ll at least finish on time with Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile pulling up the rear.

 

Where Does Mobile Broadband Reviews [MBR] fall in all of this?

Things run a little differently at this site.

If you know my story, then you also know that I’m a strong advocate of freedom and by extension, freedom of access to information. Naturally, information is most readily accessed through the internet and so I sing my song of freedom here.

I’ll continue to provide you the un-sugarcoated truth in one place with no chaser. I’ll help you stay in the know about the most important parts of mobile broadband. In the coming weeks, stay tuned for:

  • In-depth 2011 Mobile Broadband Reviews of every postpaid, prepaid and mobile broadband rental provider out there plus updated comparisons.
  • An updated Mobile Broadband Buyer’s Guide with a Free Downloadable Extensive Report.
  • Written and video reviews of 3G and 4G devices via YouTube.

 

As part of my commitment to you moving forward, the website has had a complete overhaul that I’ve been working on 3 months.

On the surface the changes are slight, but underneath it’ll allow me to respond to your messages quicker and get you the information you need faster.

Thank you for reading MBR. I respect and appreciate your time.

Before we part ways today, what are your thoughts on the state of mobile broadband?

Leave a comment.

I’d love to hear what you think.

To Your Success,

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Uncomplicating Mobile Broadband

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12 Comments

  1. Thomas Chung says:


    Hi Marc,

    Nice format and content. It is nice to see that there is an initiative to have 4G accessible to 98% of the population. I personally rely on this 4G connection as I travel a lot for my job, and being connected is important to me. I am currently under the Clear mobile plan (4G+) and it works well, and no data caps for 4G. I like to switch to Verizon LTE, but I am not thrilled with the data caps, even if 10GB is an option. With a much faster connection, 10GB will be depleted in no time. I’m hoping that other carriers (other than Clear/Sprint) will also offer an unlimited 4G plan later, but it doesn’t seem possible for now.

    Keep up the good work and thanks for keeping us all informed.


    • Marc says:


      Hi Thomas,

      I was definitely pleased with the 98% 4G initiative myself. I’m also running a 4G connection through Sprint and it’s my only connection to the internet. Having 4G everywhere would be a major plus.

      Like yourself, I wouldn’t go to Verizon for higher speeds only to finish my capped data quicker. That’s like taking a Ferrari out for a 100 meter dash. What’s the point?

      While 10 GB will be more than enough for many people, I’m quite the power user and would definitely blow through the limit.


  2. Poppy says:


    You know I have no kind of high speed in my dead area! who can I sue? Our dead beat pres.said he,s going to fix that! What a laugh!


    • Marc says:


      No high speed is incredibly frustrating. Here’s the important point though Poppy, the government isn’t going to fix. Rather they’ll subsidize it. Instead, it’s going to be up to the Verizons, AT&Ts, Sprints and T-mobiles to fix it. If there’s anyone to be upset with, it’ll be them. After all, they deemed it unprofitable to provide service in rural areas such as yours based on not having a large enough market.

      Hopefully, this will help to change that. As always though, we will see.


  3. john says:


    tried to sign up for what you are offering but kept getting error msg bad url

    what do i do/?


    • Marc says:


      Hey John,

      What is it that you’re trying to sign up for and what is the URL?


  4. Patricia says:


    Today researching mobile broadband outside our local broadband provider Jefferson Broadband aka Cutthroat Communications. Thanks for your information and the time you take to share it. I rarely travel, but found myself having to do so recently. Used Cricket in AZ in January. Limited coverage otherwise okay. Looking into a service that will cover Portland and Boston this year. May not travel again for another few years…. your info was helpful. Thanks again.


    • Marc says:


      LOL @ Cutthroat Communications!

      It’s great to hear that MBR has helped you. I feel honored to be able to help you and every one else that takes the time to learn more about mobile broadband.


  5. Gary Friedman says:


    Marc, I want you to know that the service and knowledge you’re providing is just awesome, and I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed. I haven’t seen your kind of in-depth comparisons anywhere else. I travel around the world and rely on my internet connection to make a living. This is why I have AT&T, but once you leave the continent they charge you $20/MB for data. Am keeping an eye out for 3rd party alternatives, and your site is the first place I’ll be looking.


  6. Jerry says:


    I live in a pretty rural area of Washington state. We have no high speed cable available and have lived with dialup service for years. About 4 months ago our cell phone service from ATT, which owns the only tower within about 30 miles of us, improved dramatically, so we took a chance on their $60 a month mobile broadband service. It does work here, but the service is really only a marginal improvement over dialup, and unfortunately includes many “drops’ of service and sometimes 2 or 3 day periods without service.

    But forget “4G”, we’re only hoping that someday we’ll see an upgrade from the “Edge” network we currently have to 3G with a more constant, reliable service. ATT can’t tell us whether it has any plans to ever upgrade the service from their tower, which is about 8 miles, as the crow flies, from our town of Trout Lake, WA. I give this as background for my question about your report.

    It seemed to me you were saying that verizon was planning to cover the entire nation with higher speed (i.e. the faux “4G”) by the end of 2013. Does that mean it is likely there will be competition to ATT in rural areas like ours from Verizon with a reliable, high speed broadband service? Or, as we have come to expect, will the “entire nation” probabaly continue to not include rural areas?

    I know there is probabaly no way to give real, accurate answers to these questions but I’m curious if anyone has any information about whether this issue is really being addressed, either by the service providers as a business matter or by some governement body in response to the President’s proposals.


    • Marc says:


      Hi Jerry,

      You hit the nail on the head. There’s absolutely no point to this grand announcement if the under-served rural populations are still disconnected moving forward. With what’s been announced, you can expect that rural areas will be included. One indicator is that the newer 4G technology will serve as the backbone for public infrastructure (communication) and emergency services. In short, 911 operators and other public service professionals will come to rely on it. The game plan is for it to become as ubiquitous as hard-wired telephone lines. Like older telephones in their time, 4G will seem novel at first, but will become the new standard by which we do business (like cellphones vs. wired phones).


  7. JACK says:


    I don’t Know…I am in NJ, and mobile broadband (from ATT, Verizon, OR T-Mobile) just won’t work in my house..this concerns me…if it won’t work here, how will it work when I go to rural areas like Montana, or North Dakota? I mean if i drive on rural roads in NJ, the MIFI (or usb modem) connects and disconnects while driving..this is very annoying if you are watching live sports, etc.. Also annoying is even when it does connect, there is too much buffering, as the speeds are too slow..i hate the whole thing..why can’t they just have blazing fast speeds that can work seemlessly anywhere in the country, in any kind of building, with no exceptions(much like xm radio does)?


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