Call it 4G insanity. It's the ceaseless stream of wireless and smartphone commercials that you see online and on TV. Those ads tout the magical properties of this newest wireless network, one that promises to do everything but sweep your floors and cook dinner. They say – these service providers and carriers – that 4G is about to change your life.
A lot of the hype is marketing nonsense, of course, but once you investigate beyond the ads, you'll see that 4G really does have the power to alter aspects of your life.
What is 4G, exactly? Well, it's the latest incarnation (the fourth generation, thus the 4 and the G) of the networks that make cell phones work. In the 1980s and '90s, 1G and 2G networks mostly handled voice and simple digital data. In the 2000s, 3G marked the beginning of mobile Internet access.
Now comes 4G. There's no agreed upon standard for 4G, and wireless companies stretch the term for all it's worth. But in short, any network that's substantially faster than 3G is fair game for the 4G label. That includes upgraded 3G networks as well as fresh networks, like 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), built for zippy speeds that'll keep them relevant for years to come.
4G networks offer faster service and can provide smartphone-sizzling speeds to many users at the same time. Those capabilities open up a new horizon of opportunities for all sorts of novel wireless applications that might simplify our lives, keep us better connected and yes, perhaps even change the way we work and play. And this massive evolutionary leap into 4G is just now getting underway.
Go, Go Video
Sure, right now you can use your 3G phone for video calls, YouTube clips and sometimes even streaming live TV. But when network congestion is high, that video stutters, skips and becomes generally unwatchable.
4G will be a lot faster, and those speed increases are necessary. With data traffic expected to explode by 33 times before 2020, older networks will be strained to the breaking point [source: 3GPP]. More and more people using video will bog down networks further.
4G isn't the cure-all for every video scenario. For example, you probably won't be watching high-definition live sports on a mobile device anytime in the next few years. But when it comes to standard definition, 4G should offer a big improvement over 3G, which, although fast, rarely tops more than 1.5 mbps (megabits-per-second) at peak hours [source: Salon].
Improved 4G networks, however, could provide you with an average of 10 to 20 mbps, according to Richard Karpinksi, senior mobility analyst at Yankee Group. That's faster than the speeds many people get through their hardwired home computers connected to cable modems and DSL.
So those futuristic video calls you used to see on TV shows and movies? Yeah, those are coming, and soon, thanks to 4G. Throw in other video applications of all kinds, and your smartphone will be a hub for video that fits right in your pocket.
The Anywhere Office
OK, we don't really want to bring the idea of work into a story about the fun offered by 4G, but the power of 4G is already being harnessed by all sorts of businesses.
For years now, you've heard more about telecommuting and what's called the mobile office. Since 2005, for example, in the United States there's been a 74 percent increase in the number of people who work from home at least one day per month. What's more, 40 percent of Americans have jobs that could be performed at home [source: Telework].
Businesses now rely on wireless. In fact, 96 percent of small businesses use wireless devices, and 63 percent say they couldn't survive without their ubiquitous connections [Source: AT&T].
3G made it a gamble to access files several megabytes in size. Sharing a video, blueprint or normal word processing document turned into a hit-or-miss proposition. On deadline and away from your office Internet connection? How about a palpable sense of panic to go with that timeout error?
4G is a big part of the mobile office equation. Now, graphics, video clips and presentations loaded with all sorts of multimedia are accessible via a smartphone or tablet. Even at hours when network traffic is exceedingly high, you'll still be able to send and receive data reliably, for pleasure and for less fun activities.
Music in the Cloud, Clear and Loud
Right now all sorts of programs, applications and data are stored to the cloud, hosted on multiple, Internet-connected servers. To access your goodies, you simply have to remember your login name and password. Oh, and of course, you need Internet access. And for streaming music, video and other staples of a multimedia dinner, you need a fast, dependable connection.
A lickety-split connection is even more indispensable when it comes to streaming audio from services such as Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Drive, iCloud and Google Music. All of these companies let you stream thousands of songs from their servers to your mobile device, no matter where you might be.
That flexibility of availability is a wonderful thing -- how cool would it be to blast music from the soundtrack of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" while you're spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns? The awesomeness would be unmatched, but that dream is unlikely to happen without a great 4G connection.
After you find a 4G signal, streaming should be a snap. The only real challenge might be your data transfer limits. As more and more users jump to 4G, expect providers to cap (or charge exorbitantly for) very high data usage.
The Internet of Things
As 4G networks spread, get ready to see and hear this phrase, "The Internet of Things," over and over again. It basically refers to the idea of everyone and everything (from milk cartons to cows) having embedded chips that identify and connect them to the Internet.
The applications of this kind of data are endless. Your alarm clock, for instance, could become a more intelligent and useful device. Connected to the Internet, it knows when the roads are icy and that you'll need extra time to make the commute, so it wakes you up earlier. It also starts your car to make sure the windows are ice-free in time for your departure. You can see a whole range of other possibilities in this Cisco infographic.
The Internet of Things is also sometimes called machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. Like your fancy alarm clock, it enables all sorts of automated technological tricks. Your prescription bottle knows it's almost empty, so it calls in refills without your help. You could track down stolen items -- anything, really -- no matter where a thief takes your stuff. Health tags can monitor your vital signs and send critical information straight to your nurse for evaluation.
But with everything from cows to milk emitting data at all times, networks will need to accommodate a ceaseless flow of wireless traffic. 3G networks won't be able to handle the burden, but the increased capacity of 4G can.
With 4G, mobile social media, video calls and gaming will accelerate to Mach speeds. That's in large part due to the increased capacity and reduced latency of 4G.
A single 3G base station lets only a few dozen people work at 3G-like speeds. However, 4G networks allow more people -- sometimes hundreds -- to simultaneously access and share a delicious 4G connection. That higher capacity means more people can put video uploading and video conferencing to use at the same time.
Equally important is the lower latency (or delay) in 4G. 3G networks often have delays of 100ms (milliseconds) or so. But there's no noticeable delay at all in 4G, which features latency of only around 20ms [source: Telecoms].
Lower latency is critical for video conferencing calls. When there are any delays whatsoever, people wind up talking over each other and basically get frustrated with the experience. The same goes for fast-paced, multi-player online gaming. If you're playing the latest war title, you can't afford any lag time in your reactions, lest you accidentally jump onto a grenade instead of away from it. Faster 4G means accurate response times and, of course, bragging rights to higher scores.
Whether you're blowing up online bunkers or just want to have a nice video chat with your grandma, you need speedy wireless. 3G, we hardly knew ye. But no one will shed tears for that archaic network technology. Instead, they'll weep for joy at the wonderful ways that 4G helps them maximize their mobile Internet experience.
Ever been to a concert and not been able to get a signal on your smartphone? 5G promises to take care of that. HowStuffWorks explores 5G in this article.
More Great Links
- Beavis, Gareth. "Can 4G Really Change Our Lives? Gizmodo. Nov. 16, 2011. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2011/11/can-4g-really-change-our-lives/
- Brown, Jack. "Machine-2-Machine, Internet of Things, Real-World Internet." 4G-Portal.com. Aug. 25, 2011. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://4g-portal.com/machine-2-machine-internet-of-things-real-world-internet
- Eddy, Nathan. "Tablets, 4G Smartphones Gain Traction Among Small Businesses; AT&T." Eweek.com. Feb. 16, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Mobile-and-Wireless/Tablets-4G-Smartphones-Gain-Traction-Among-Small-Businesses-ATandT-563387/
- Evans, Dave. "The Internet of Things." Cisco Blog. July 15, 2011. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://blogs.cisco.com/news/the-internet-of-things-infographic/
- Liu, Rue. "Evrythng to Connect Physical Objects to the Internet." Slashgear.com. Feb. 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.slashgear.com/evrythng-to-connect-physical-objects-to-the-internet-20214434/
- Shumpeter. "The Internet of Hype." The Economist Blog. Dec. 9, 2010. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2010/12/internet_things
- Thomas, Stuart. "Evrythng: The Company that Wants to Bring...Everything Online." Memeburn.com. Feb. 20, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://memeburn.com/2012/02/everythng-the-company-that-wants-to-connect-everything-to-the-internet/
- Ulanoff, Lance. "Your Bandwidth will be Throttled. Here's Why." Mashable.com. Feb. 19, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://mashable.com/2012/02/17/your-bandwidth-will-be-throttled-heres-why/
- Wilson, Nichelle. "Q&A with Michael Maiorana of Verizon Wireless." Maryland Chamber of Commerce Blog. Jan. 12, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://blog.mdchamber.com/qa-with-michael-maiorana-of-verizon-wireless
- Yankee Group press release. "4G Technologies to Reach Nearly 700 Million Mobile Users by 2015." Yankee Group. Oct. 24, 2011. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.yankeegroup.com/about_us/press_releases/2011-10-25.html
- Zeman, Eric. "iTunes Match, Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive Smackdown." Informationweek.com. Nov. 16, 2011. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.informationweek.com/news/cloud-computing/software/231903150