The Internet on Your Cell Phone

A while back I talked with some friends about using the internet on their cell phone. They had plenty of questions like, “What does the ‘E’ mean?”, “What does the ‘3G’ mean?” and “What is EV-DO?”  Those are fairly easy questions to answer, but was difficult for them to understand the implications.  What does it *really* mean?

First, I want to talk about the two basic kinds of cellular data systems (eg, getting the internet through your cell phone,) GSM and CDMA. 

GSM explained

The more widely used system is known as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), and by widely used I mean about 80% of the world, more than a  Billion subscribers in well over 100 countries.  Odds are, if you have a GSM phone you’ll be able to travel and, despite the costly roaming charges, use your phone.  AT&T is the largest cellular provider in the States who uses GSM.  One huge advantage of GSM is the ability to use voice and data capabilities of your phone at the same time.  If, for instance you’d like to send and email or find a place on a map at the same time you’re talking to the recipient or destination, you can do so with a GSM phone.

CDMA explained 

Code Division Multiple Access is the other kind of cellular data system.  CDMA is just a fancy way of saying the system uses the same radio signal but each conversation is specially coded so only the intended person on the otherside (who is using the same code) can be a part of the conversation.  The benefit of CDMA is that the cellular provider  doesn’t have to by as much radio “space” to deliver a whole lot of conversations.  Verizon is the largest CDMA provider in the States and often can be heard bragging about the least number of dropped calls as a direct result of using CDMA.  The downside is that you can’t do anything else while you’re talking.  Another downside is that as a rule CDMA data speeds are slower than GSM.

Have I gone over your head?  Still reading?  Good!

Why do data speeds matter?  Well, if you’re just reading your email or looking up a phone number online, it won’t matter all that much.  I spend a lot of time traveling so being able to talk while doing other things such as checking my bank account balance, looking up the name of an author or just reading Twitter posts, GSM is a must.  So, for now, I’ll stick with AT&T.  If you’re a Verizon subscriber and have a BlackBerry or plan on getting an iPhone you’ll either only talk or only text and data on your phone.  (There is one caveat, and that’s if you’re on WiFi… but the odds you’ll always be at Starbucks while talking on your phone are exactly high.:))

GSM Speeds (AT&T)

On to the different speeds: when we drove to Omaha, we were on 3G for some of the trip but the rest was on the much slower EDGE (Enhance Data rate for for GSM Evolution) data speeds.  Kelly had gotten so used to 3G that when it dropped to EDGE she got mighty agitated. 😉 At least she wasn’t on GPRS (General Packet Radio Service.)  GPRS is about the same old-school dial-up.  In other words S-L-O-W.  You may as well not even try.  EDGE is about 2 to 4 times faster.  Not a huge leap, but better than nothing if you really need that cute picture of your kids in the high chair with food all over his face.  4 times slow is still slow.  Now we get the GSM’s first answer to the speed question: 3G.  3G is about 10 times faster than the fastest GPRS, or about as fast as a slow home internet connection.  That’s fast enough to get emails, surf the web, even watch some video (as long as it’s not HD.)  Bottom line up front (BLUF): If you see 3G on your phone screen, you’ll be able to do some pretty impressive stuff on the internet.  The future?  It’s know as LTE (Long Term Evolution) and is still several years from becoming reality.  But when it does? You’ll be seeing speeds at least 10 times faster than 3G.  Talk about screaming fast!!!  I can’t wait.  😀

CDMA Speeds (Verizon and Sprint)

I’ve not had much experience with Verizon except for a year long stint using a Verizon BlackBerry for work.  It’s “1x” speed was similar to that of EDGE and EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) was about the same as 3G… except for the upload speeds.  Early EV-DO upload speeds were as slow as EDGE which meant you didn’t want to send any large emails or emails with attachments.  Recent upgrades (EV-DO Rev A and B) have picked up the speed but if you’re using an older cellphone that wasn’t built to take advantage of these revisions, you’re out of luck.  The elephant in the room, however is that CDMA is relatively limited to the US… and it is widely believed to be phased out over the next several years in favor of the LTE.  That means CDMA will eventually go the way of the Dodo.  But don’t panic! CDMA won’t just disappear one day, you’ll have plenty of warning. 

4G… is fake

I’ve been seeing plenty of commercials for 4G from Sprint.  Well, it’s not 4G.  Like most Communications Standards there is an international organization who determines what speeds qualify as 4G… and at anywhere between 100Mb/s for fast moving users (planes, trains and automobiles) and 1Gb/s for slow movers (pedestrians), the current offering from Sprint is no where *near* those speeds.  In fact, FiOS (Fiber Optic Service like that provide by Verizon’s Internet Service) is just now reaching those speeds, and only “theoretically.”  Sprint’s service peak speeds rarely get above 7Mb/s which is about the same as a fast cable internet service provider.  Let’s do a quick bit of comparison, shall we?  100Mb/s divided by 7Mb/s equals rougly 14… So Sprint is really bragging about their limited “4G service” which is acutally 14 times slower than what it is supposed to be.  All in all, it is a marketing ploy.  You might consider their service to be the 4th Generation of 3G.  A little bit faster, but not by much.

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Posted in Internet, iPhone

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