Cell phone companies are about to barrage consumers with advertising for the next advance in wireless network technology: “4G” access.The companies are promising faster speeds and the thrill of being the first on the block to use a new acronym.
So what is 4G?
Broadly speaking, it’s a new way to use the airwaves, designed from the start for the transmission of data rather than phone calls. To do that, it borrows aspects of the latest generation of Wi-Fi, the short-range wireless technology.
For the consumers, 4G means, in the ideal case, faster access to data. For instance, streaming video might work better, with less stuttering and higher resolution. Videoconferencing is difficult on 3G and might work better on 4G. Multiplayer video games may benefit too.
4G is like the difference between watching regular TV and high-definition TV. Once you’ve experienced high-definition TV it’s hard to go back to standard TV. It’s the same sort of thing here.
There’s another, more subtle benefit to 4G. While it’s not always faster than the best 3G when it comes to helping you download a big file in less time, it is definitely faster in the sense that it takes less time to initiate the flow of data to you. What that means is that 4G is faster for quick back-and-forth communications. You wouldn’t notice this when surfing the Web or doing e-mail: We’re talking delays of 0.03 second rather than 0.15 second. But it could mean that 4G will work better for multiplayer gaming, where split-second timing is important. Even phone calls could benefit from shorter audio delays.
In five years or so, many phones are likely to have 4G capabilities, but they’ll complement it with 3G. Rather than a sudden revolution, consumers are likely to experience a gradual transition to the new technology, with increasing speeds. But for now, 4G is no magic bullet.