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4G? No, It’s More Like 4Gee!

Have you actually held a 4G device in your hands while it does a speed test? Has your brain struggled to reconcile the numbers displayed at the end of the test with the fact that you’re connected to a mobile network and not Wi-Fi? Have you felt your reality get pleasantly rocked in a way that left you a bit confounded over the numbers that your device was showing you? This 4G stuff is simply amazing.

A few blogs back I wrote about how the term 4G is being somewhat incorrectly bandied about with respect to technical accuracy. But during the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a couple of exercises that have me sparkly-eyed to the point of not really caring that what we’re calling 4G is just a shadow of what it will one day come to be. It’s just pretty darn amazing regardless of semantics.

No, I did not upgrade to a 4G device. I’m still plodding along with my Verizon 3G smartphone, where on a good day I can get about 3 Mbps down and a meg on the upload. These are not terrible numbers, and the 3G lifestyle usually serves me well. But I have now seen how the other half lives up close and personal, and it has my wheels turning as I contemplate the implications.

I teach an introduction to networking undergrad class, and recently took part in an exercise comparing network speeds across a sampling of mobile devices owned by students and a couple of faculty types. As we each ran the same Ookla Speedtest app and added our values to the table on the white board, it became obvious that we weren’t all living the same lifestyle. The numbers from my Casio Commando were the lowest of even my fellow 3G-ers, but what was amazing was that a couple of student devices were getting as much as 10 times better results than I was seeing at the time. One young man was consistently seeing 30 Mbps download speed. (Yeah, 30--as in 3-0.)

And then, just the other day, my boss was marveling at his new 4G iPhone, as he ran his old 3G version alongside the new toy. And just like my experience in the classroom, he was wowed to see 25 Mbps-plus consistently delivered on the 4G network. I’m not sure which one of us said the words, but the implication was profound: This actually competes with our Wi-Fi network. For me, a floodgate of realization opened at this point. And while none of this is quite headline news, once you see it for yourself, it does change your perspective on things.

The local 4G numbers are not just impressive, they are potentially empowering. I fully know that "your mileage may vary," based on how busy the cell in play is at any given time. Forget for a moment that these blazing speeds help you to rapidly march toward extra fees on the typical data plan as you do ever more with bandwidth that enables anything you can dream of doing. This is bandwidth that you can do things with. For me, I can’t help but contemplate the handful of faraway sites I have that are served by expensive business-class ISP connections with site-to-site VPNs back to our main network. As a minimum, 4G would make excellent back-up connectivity should we lose our ISP service. (And we do on occasion--sorry, Time Warner.) In some cases, 4G speeds may actually be better than what we can provide in a remote site with a more traditional ISP. Interesting food for thought.

For small businesses, especially ones that somehow get into reasonably priced and generous data plans, a 4G Mi-Fi-type hotspot may be all of the ISP and network connectivity needed for a handful of networked machines. And, interestingly, depending on the circumstances, mobile broadband companies that do the Wi-Fi offload thing may actually be moving their customers to slower connectivity when they shed 4G clients off to the world of 802.11 wireless. That’s pretty freaky, given that Wi-Fi has typically kicked butt over mobile networks for speed.

If you’re already living 4G high life, my epiphany on the topic will no doubt seem hum-drum. But for those of you yet to get your first glimpse of 4G in action, I envy you for the thrill yet to come. If you are charged with designing networks and planning connectivity for different situations, your first real interaction with 4G will certainly change how you see the world.