How 4G Works

The Living, Breathing Network

4G LTE trumps many of 3G's limitations and adds a whole range of synapse-snapping capabilities. Be advised – if the "Terminator" and "Matrix" films frightened you, consider skipping ahead to the next page.

Archaic 1G and 2G networks are stupid, technologically speaking. But 4G networks are, in a sense, intelligent machines. For example, they're better equipped to deal with unexpected congestion caused by random world events, such as traffic jams. When thousands of people are suddenly stuck on a highway, they start using their phones, which causes a major spike in demand for data services in that area.

In this situation, 3G systems balk and stumble, leaving users frustrated. The more sophisticated, self-organizing and self-configuring 4G systems, however, can compensate on the fly and provide faster service for more people. Similarly, power outages and equipment failures often cripple 3G systems. But thanks to sensors and advanced software, a 4G system has self-healing capabilities that let it route traffic through other towers until repairs are made.

The startling part is that 4G networks can perform such workarounds without human intervention. In a sense, says Wojtek Felendzer, technical solutions marketing manager at Nokia Siemens Networks, these systems are the biggest machines that humankind has ever built, stretching from coast to coast and across the world. And for the first time, they are getting smart enough to fix themselves.

In spite of all of this, 4G really isn't a radical new technology. In fact, "People in this industry sometimes say that nothing new has been invented in the past 100 years," said Felendzer. It's just a new way of combining established knowledge with more powerful processing equipment. Take your smartphone as evidence. Many such phones now have dual-core processors, which equates to computing power unheard of just a few years ago.

So if you've ever feared a tech takeover, it may soon be time to head for your bunker in the wilderness. Until then, keep reading and you'll see how you can watch a war of a different sort, between the network operators.