It's 5:00 in the afternoon. Do you know how much data your smartphone apps are sucking out of the ether?
It's probably at least 10 megabytes per hour, and it may be as much as 115 MB/h, according to a recent study by the British firm Virgin Media Business. In other words, depending on what you're using it for, your phone or tablet might be consuming—or more likely struggling but failing to consume—the data equivalent of about 100 medium-size books every hour.
If you're on a 3G network, you have our sympathies. But cheer up: 4G is coming to a cellphone tower near you, if it hasn't already. With a conformity rare in technology, let alone in perennially fractious telephony, the world's wireless operators are falling in line behind a 4G standard called LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. According to the market research firm iSuppli Corp., the number of 4G LTE subscribers will grow by 400 percent this year, and about 10 percent of global wireless subscribers will have LTE connections by 2015.
Today's LTE networks deliver data download rates about 10 times those of 3G while making more efficient use of the radio spectrum. Basically, 4G LTE can keep up, if just barely, with the soaring data demands of the fast-growing ranks of ever more sophisticated smartphones.
Most smartphones can already accommodate data at rates that exceed the networks' capabilities, says Paul Kapustka of Sidecut Reports, a service that analyzes carrier technologies. Given the chance, broadband phones will choke their wireless networks to death. Telecom equipment makers such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson have convinced network operators around the world that LTE is the technology that will keep their networks moving fast.
The Global Mobile Suppliers Association reports that 4G LTE networks are being built by 280 operators in 90 countries, and dozens of these networks will light up the airwaves in 2012. It's easy to see why. Increasingly, people are using their phones and tablets to stream music, movies, and television shows; check in with their social networks; place two-way video calls; and even have virtual visits with their doctors. All those bandwidth hogs are more reliable and fun to use with LTE. Indeed, within a year of the Swedish telecom TeliaSonora taking its 4G LTE network live, the average users' monthly download total rose to about 15 gigabytes from about 3 GB. LTE is fast enough to support such features as high-definition video. So Phil Solis, research director of mobile networks at ABI Research, predicts a sharp rise this year in users of video call services like Skype, FaceTime, and Fring.
LTE networks are not all created equal, but early rollouts are more than validating backers' claims of a tenfold speed increase over 3G. In Australia, a 3G connection averages just under 2 megabits per second, says Mike Wright, executive director of Telstra Corp. networks and access technologies. When Telstra, the country's largest telecom, launched a 4G network in 2011, average download speeds rose to 20 Mb/s. In Dallas, between April and October of 2011, Verizon launched a new LTE network and saw a jump from around 0.75 Mb/s to between 11 and 14 Mb/s, according to data analysts at RootMetrics. That's about double the speed most Americans get through their cable and DSL broadband services.
It's good news for the millions of people who primarily use their cellular connections to access the Web. And the good news doesn't stop there. Mobile connections at 4G speeds are supercharging older platforms as well: Forty percent of today's 4G consumer devices are routers that bring the Internet to one or more computers, and 25 percent are dongles for laptop computers.
LTE and 4G have not always been one and the same. LTE was once one of two standards marketed as 4G. However, decisions in the past year have effectively edged out LTE's competitor, WiMax. The U.S. operator Sprint, which initially deployed WiMax, will build out a separate LTE network this year. Even though the company's WiMax service will be around for some time, nobody expects it to be a long-term solution. LTE's triumph is all the more remarkable considering that WiMax had a head start.