So I have a confession to make—I’m late on this one. Way late. I managed to catch strep throat, came down with a high fever, then a sinus infection, and as a result missed my goal of having everything Verizon 4G LTE wrapped up and published a few weekends ago. One thing led to the other, and I promised a number of readers both in emails and on Twitter that it would be done a long time before it ended up coming to fruition. I think I’m going to add a week to all time estimations from now on, just to be safe. Apologies if I made you refresh obsessively a few times there.

That said, it isn’t entirely a loss. Over the past month, I somehow have found myself getting slowly buried in literally every single Verizon 4G LTE device (with the exception of the LG VL600 data card) and that’s a good position to be in.

The story of our LTE testing started actually before MWC with the Pantech UML290, and since then each time a new device has shown up, I’ve hopped in my car, driven two hours to Phoenix (the nearest LTE market) and spent a sleepless 48 hours testing battery life, speeds, and stability. It’s been a lot of testing, driving, and collecting data. I’ve recorded 542 speed test runs on 4G LTE as a result, and many more on EVDO for comparison. There’s a ton of stuff to go over, so to keep things manageable, I’ve split the review down the middle. This half is everything about Verizon 4G LTE from a cellular perspective including two data cards and a WiFi hotspot. The other half is just the HTC Thunderbolt.

Introduction to Cellular Network Evolution

Before you dive into our review of the Pantech UML290, Novatel Wireless USB551L, and Samsung SCH-LC11, it’s worth it to have a discussion about what “4G,” and further LTE, really is. To that extent, I think it’s also worth it to take a look back on the evolution of wireless network tech from a historical perspective. It’s usually odd to start a story out this way, but it really does give perspective for how far the mobile network story has come since its inception. Crack open any mobile broadband book, and you’ll read a narrative something like this one.

In the 1G days, all we cared about was enabling some very basic things we take completely for granted now: basic voice telephony (analog), mobile billing, roaming from carrier to carrier. Simple problems like multiplexing and managing handover were tackled, and capacity wasn’t a huge concern because of relatively limited adoption due to price. Then came 2G in the form of CDMAone/IS-95 and GSM, which brought more voice capacity (digital), and very basic data connectivity. As adoption increased, more and more capacity was necessary, prompting 3G planning.

Each of the two camps then formed their own 3G projects for improved data speeds (3GPP for GSM family technologies, 3GPP2 for CDMA family technologies), the results of which were WCDMA and CDMA2000, respectively. The W in WCDMA stood for “wide,” since 3GPP settled on relatively wide 5MHz channels compared to CDMA2000’s 1.25MHz channels. The original suite of “3G” technologies didn’t meet ITU-R goals set at IMT-2000 which put a 3G throughput target at 2Mbps, and both the 3GPP and 3GPP2 camps went back to the drawing board with a new focus on data.

3GPP2’s solution was HRPD (High Rate Packet Data) which we now know as EVDO (EVolution Data Optimized), and 3GPP came up with HSPA (High Speed Packet Access). The big differentiator between the two historically has been that HSPA offered simultaneous voice and data multiplexed on same 5MHz carrier, while the 3GPP2 solution required a separate 1.25MHz CDMA2000-1x carrier for voice. 3GPP2 went on to mitigate the lack of simultaneous voice and data with a VoIP solution in EVDV and SVDO, but it hasn’t seen adoption. The 3GPP camp improved on GPRS data rates with EDGE as well. In modern cellular data networks, HSPA and HRPD (EVDO) have become the dominant 3G players we’re used to seeing.

That’s a hugely oversimplified look at the evolution the most popular two of cellular access technologies have taken, but there’s a fairly obvious trend which emerges. Focus has gradually shifted away from delivering more and more voice capacity, and settled on delivering faster and faster data. Voice’s place in the broader picture is just another service atop a data connection, or on a legacy network technology, at least for the time being.

A Verizon 4G LTE eNodeB—the LTE antennas are the bigger ones on the outside

If you’ve been paying attention at all, chances are that you’re pretty familiar with the data scenario everywhere—3G networks based on tech from both the 3GPP and 3GPP2 camps are strained to capacity. The short term solution is to deploy more and more carriers (channels) and linearly scale capacity, but that requires more and more spectrum. The long term solution is even more spectrally efficient multiplexing schemes, smart antennas, and spatial multiplexing, which offer more efficient use of the same spectrum.

The story of 4G thus far has been unfortunately dominated by semantics surrounding what suite of network tech qualifies as being truly fourth generation. Remember how I mentioned that ITU-R set some guidelines way back for what should be considered the bar for 3G? Back then it was 2Mbps while moving. The ITU-R did a similar thing for 4G, and that original guideline was an optimistic 1Gbps stationary and 100Mbps with mobility. It helps sometimes to have actual goals. The exact quote gives a bit more leeway:

“The goals for the capability of systems beyond IMT-2000 are up to approximately 100Mbps for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1Gbps for low mobility such as nomadic/local wireless access around the year 2010. These goals are targets for research and investigation and may be further developed in other ITU Recommendations, and may be revised in the light of future studies.”

In October, ITU-R recognized LTE-Advanced and WiMAX equivalent (P802.16m) as true 4G technologies that met the 1Gbps stationary and 100Mbps mobility requirements, in addition to a number of other guidelines. In December, however, ITU-R relented and declared that both LTE and WiMAX (as they’re deployed right now) can be called 4G. However, part of this hedging was one more statement—“[in addition,] evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities” also qualify to be considered 4G.

This essentially is leeway to allow HSPA+ which offers some of the same evolutionary enhancements and features such as higher order modulation, MIMO, and multicarrier to also qualify as 4G. Without them, I think it’s fair to argue that it isn’t really quite the same level of advancement.

In reality, the ITU doesn’t have any ability to police what marketers or carriers bill as 4G. Heck, they could start calling things 5G or 6G tomorrow. One friend I have sarcastically has his N900 set to show “6G” when connected to 3G. But ultimately ITU should be considered an authority nonetheless for setting the bar somewhere.

LTE Network Tech Explained
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  • OctavioShaffer - Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - link

    this very informative, i can now open my vpn server, through my Ip address 192.168.1.1. because recently i spend days just to search a to fix my problem. Thanks alot! Reply
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I live in an LTE market and would be happy to accept some LTE devices if you don't want to be driving to Phoenix ;)

    For that matter I also have a Droid X with the stock 2.2 build.

    Playing with a Thunderbolt at a Verizon store the data speeds are really quick. Will be interesting to see how much they drop off though with more users.
    Reply
  • Penti - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    They use 20MHz in 2.6GHz here in Sweden (few cities so far) so you can actually see speeds up to about 80 Mbits here, LTE-Adv on 800MHz is in the works of being deployed here now, but they will be using 10MHz spectrum. I'm guessing people in major cities will see 20-80Mbits and people in areas only covered by 800MHz will see 10-40Mbits. Latency is where it clearly matters though. Though 50 Mbits on 2x10MHz 700MHz is clearly at the top. It's not often you will see much of high speeds any way.

    To bad they pretty much price themselves out of the market though. A 16Mbit Turbo3G connection is less then half of what 4G costs here. For limitless traffic at least.
    Reply
  • xp3nd4bl3 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Love the graphing. Reply
  • mars2k - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Not good, I need USB tethering. This is a deal breaker for me. I need outside access in several places where wi fi is not allowed. Reply
  • Lord 666 - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    Brian,

    Currently have an open ticket with VZW about the lack of public addresses. Have several LTE cards used with cradlepoints that are used for DMVPN backup connections and need public addresses. In testing, would randomly get nat'd address bring up a complete tunnel, but it was very rare. All of the IPs issued were 10.xxx in NYC.

    Was told static public IPs will be available around May.
    Reply
  • nerdydesi - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I'm curious on what you meant by this.

    "Note that the Thunderbolt is a 2x1 device while the others are 2x2, which explains some of the upstream throughput distribution difference"

    Do you mean that the other devices have more antennas than the Thunderbolt and thus why their speeds seemed to be faster than the Thunderbolt? Regarding the phone and its "unlimited data", I used 30gb in my last billing cycle and so far 70gb now with no peep from Verizon. It could also be that I'm currently a VZW employee. I hope that because I bought the phone, I can be grandfathered into the plan.

    Also as a note, if you take the sim card from the Thunderbolt with its full voice and data plan and put that into a mifi or USB modem, you get the unlimited data as well. Just keep in mind you pay more per month due to having the voice along with it (which is useless on the modem devices), but still better than the current 5gb and 10gb caps. If you do vice versa, take the card from a modem to an LTE phone, you are charged for each minute of voice and each text unless you change your plan.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    " AT&T on the other hand has a sprinkling of lower block B and C licenses that are both 12MHz. AT&T also purchased Qualcomm's licenses to blocks D and E, which are both 6MHz unpaired, though it's not entirely clear how AT&T will integrate both blocks of unpaired spectrum. All total that gives AT&T between 24 and 36MHz of 700MHz spectrum, again depending on market."

    Since the only blocks that they own nationwide are the 6mhz D and E blocks shouldn't it be 12 to 36mhz of spectrum. Looking at auction maps it appears there're fairly large areas where ATT didn't win the A or the B blocks.

    http://www.cellularmaps.com/700_auction.shtml
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    That's a good point. If they can manage to either TDD or FDD both of those it should be 12 to 36. Just don't forget about the lower C block which was involved prior to this latest auction, that's the 24 that I'm thinking of.

    With 12 MHz of spectrum they can run 5 MHz FDD channels which really won't be much faster than current WCDMA systems. I guess that's why I mentally discounted it.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Lothsahn - Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - link

    I notice that with my Sprint aircard, I maintain the 3G connection even during extended trips across the nation. However, the 4G connection on the same aircard appears to be unable to handoff and loses its connection while traveling constantly. I find that my connection disconnects every 2-3 minutes when actually moving. However, if I'm stationary in a building, it'll maintain the connection for hours.

    What results did you have with LTE for these sorts of usage scenarios?
    Reply

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