Verizon's new 4G LTE network is the fastest in the land, and makes the carrier, once again, the Cadillac of wireless networks. For road warriors toting Windows-based laptops, this network is the plus ultra of wireless Internet connectivity. If you need speedy Web access while on the road, it doesn't get better than this. But high prices and limited device selection don't make this a good choice for average consumers yet.
Verizon Wireless is actually the fourth U.S. carrier to call its network 4G, after T-Mobile, Sprint, and MetroPCS. The four carriers use very different technologies, none of which are technically 4G. Sprint has a WiMAX network, T-Mobile's network is HSPA+ and MetroPCS's is LTE, but a much slower variant than Verizon is using.
Technology and Coverage
With LTE, Verizon chose a truly forward-looking 4G technology. LTE is the main global standard for 4G, with hundreds of mobile-phone companies switching over to LTE in the next few years. Here in the United States, AT&T, Cricket, and MetroPCS have all committed to going to LTE, and Sprint and T-Mobile have been flirting with the technology.
This means, hopefully, LTE equipment and phones will be easy to come by in the future. They may not be easily swappable between carriers, though. Just like with cell phones, LTE uses a bunch of different frequency bands, and your device must support the right band to work on your carrier. Verizon's devices and those from MetroPCS don't support each other's bands, for instance, so you can't switch them between networks.
Verizon's LTE network currently covers 38 major metro areas and more than 60 airports, about a third of the U.S. population. The carrier has said it will have complete nationwide coverage by 2013.
Sprint has more metro areas covered—in the sixties—but covers less of some of them. While the two carriers' coverage areas around Chicago are equivalent, for example, Verizon covers more suburban counties in the New York City area. T-Mobile is the 4G coverage leader, covering 96 percent of the U.S. population with its HSPA+ 21 technology.
Just as important, Verizon has a stronger reputation for providing even coverage within cities. Verizon has the most misleading online coverage map of any of the major carriers—it doesn't show signal strength—so I'm going to have to rely on past testing here. While Sprint's WiMAX system tends to be spotty and variable, I've gotten more consistent results from Verizon's network.
During testing, I was particularly impressed with indoor coverage on LTE in Manhattan. The network's 700Mhz frequency helps it penetrate buildings, and I got decent speeds even when inside stone structures. Still, that won't help you in places like Portland, OR, where Sprint has coverage and Verizon doesn't.
Verizon promises 5-12Mbps down and 2-5Mbps up. Considering the carrier's 3G EVDO system offers 1Mbps down on average, that's a huge improvement. It's faster than some home connections.
I was able to achieve blazing fast speeds before the network officially launched, but now that it's actually being used, speeds have settled down into Verizon's stated range. On Ookla's speed test, which simulates streaming, I got peak speeds of 18.6Mbps down and 5.7Mbps up on the LTE network, with averages of 9.2Mbps down and 3.4Mbps up. In years of testing cellular networks, I've never seen results as fast as I saw with LTE. Tested a few weeks ago, Sprint's network averaged 2.93Mbps down with a high speed of 5.5Mbps. T-Mobile was having a bad day when I tested it, with an average of 1.15Mbps down on speedtest.net, but I've seen much faster from the carrier in the past, more in the 5Mbps range. (For much more comprehensive tests of T-Mobile and Sprint, see our Fastest Mobile Networks story from earlier this year.)
Speeds in other tests were lower, because Internet overhead really comes into play, but LTE still smoked the competition. FTP transfers were at least 50 percent faster than the other networks. Web pages (which are made of many small files) loaded 20 percent faster than on HSPA+ and more than twice as fast as on WiMAX.
LTE had no problem with even the most demanding Internet applications. Skype audio and video calls were clear. YouTube videos played in 720p HD without a problem. Netflix and Hulu Plus streamed easily. I downloaded a 350MB file through BitTorrent in about ten minutes. The one thing I didn't test was multiplayer gaming, because I'm not a gamer. There, you may have a slight problem with lag. Although LTE's average ping of 67ms was much faster than WiMax and HSPA+ (which were at 100-120ms), wired connections are typically around 30ms. (In these tests, lower numbers are better.)
Right now Verizon has the slimmest device choices of the major 4G networks: just two USB sticks, neither of which are officially compatible with Macs. The LG VL600 and Pantech UML290 both cost $99.99 with a two-year contract, or $249.99 without.
We'll have full, comparative reviews of those products soon, but they're both definitely first-generation devices. They're chunky, they lack the useful external antenna ports and MicroSD card readers you see on other modems, and they take up to two minutes to hand off between 3G and 4G networks when you reach the edge of a 4G coverage area.
Things aren't going to stay this way for long, though: LTE hotspots are coming. Verizon plans to introduce several LTE phones and tablets at January's CES trade show, and the first LTE phones will probably appear on shelves by May.
Sprint and T-Mobile both have more device choices. Sprint has a broad range of WiMAX devices including smartphones and hotspots. T-Mobile's position is trickier, because the carrier's two 4G phones can't hit the maximum speed of its HSPA+ network, but T-Mobile assured me more phones and tablets will be coming in 2011.
Verizon's service plans aren't bad for 3G, but they're really limited and expensive for 4G. With its fast access, LTE encourages you to use a lot of data. Various uses that would take too long, or seem too cumbersome on 3G are effortless on LTE. Downloading large files and streaming full-screen video worked perfectly in my tests.
This means if you're using LTE more than occasionally, you'll be sure to run into Verizon's 5GB (for $50/month) and 10GB (for $80/month) data caps quickly. Verizon sends users four different text messages when they're approaching their caps, so the carrier isn't trying to fool you into going over. If you do go over, however, each additional GB will cost you $10.
At Verizon's stated average speed of 8.5Mbps, you can soak up 5GB in an hour and 18 minutes. Or you could kill your 5GB by watching four movies on Netflix. Clearwire, the most established 4G provider, says its average user goes through 7GB/month; some European LTE providers have quoted 15GB of average usage per month. Verizon would charge a whopping $130/month for that much data.
Sprint's unlimited 4G plans are much more liberal, and more realistic for heavy users. Clearwire's Rover unit also offers unlimited WiMAX prepaid for $50/month.
Verizon's LTE is the fastest mobile broadband available today by far. For business mobile broadband users who need to access critical data on the go, it's the best bet. The current generation of modems, while a bit clunky, is acceptable and should provide good performance.
This network doesn't offer much to consumers yet, though. Unlike Sprint, Verizon isn't yet seeking to create new uses or break into new markets. We'll see if that changes in 2011, but for now average consumers have more options (and will have more fun) with Sprint's WiMAX system.
This article is shown here in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.