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Oh My Tech!: 4G? 3G? LTE? It matters
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I keep seeing all the ads about 4G LTE. How is it different from regular old 4G? Should I care? — Lisa Brothman, Cottonwood Heights.

Well, Lisa, welcome to the wonderful world of marketing hype. HD, DVD, Blu-ray, 3G, 4G, LTE, HTC, AT&T. There are so many acronyms and code names for technology, it's enough to make your head explode into a pile of alphabet goo.

The terms 3G and 4G refer to third-generation and fourth-generation data networks run by wireless carriers and used by mobile devices such as smartphones. These are the networks you use to connect to the Internet, surf the Web and stream music or movies.

Some carriers — such as AT&T and T-Mobile — have been using the terms inaccurately in describing their networks.

The 3G networks began showing up, first with Verizon and AT&T, about 10 years ago, and there are different versions of it. Generally, they provide anywhere from about 750 kilobits per second up to a couple of megabytes per second download.

Several years ago, AT&T and T-Mobile upgraded their 3G networks to a faster form called HSPA+, which boosted speeds noticeably. But technically, they are not true 4G networks because they were built off the previous 3G networks — and aren't as fast as a genuine 4G network.

But that didn't stop AT&T or T-Mobile from calling them 4G networks in advertisements. In reality, they are more accurately described as "3.5G" networks.

Then along came 4G LTE networks, which are widely considered the true fourth-generation data networks. Today, all four major carriers — Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile — have 4G LTE networks set up somewhere in the U.S., some more built out than others. But only Verizon and AT&T have LTE networks operating in Utah.

4G LTE, which stands for "long-term evolution," is much faster than the older 3G networks, achieving download speeds on average up to 12 or 13 megabits per second. In fact, in one area of Salt Lake County, I hit more than 50 megabits per second on AT&T's network, more than twice as fast as my Comcast cable connection at home.

To answer Lisa's question, there really isn't an "old" 4G network, just the true, newer 4G LTE networks. So don't let AT&T and T-Mobile fool you when they both tout "the largest 4G network in the country," when in fact they're counting both their 4G LTE and 3.5G networks.

As for whether she or anyone else should care about the new 4G LTE networks, the answer is, absolutely. That's because there are some differences.

In Utah and around the country, Verizon has the largest 4G LTE network and therefore the best coverage because the carrier started building its network first.

But studies, as well as my own personal experience, have shown that AT&T's 4G LTE network is noticeably faster. So if speed is a priority, go with AT&T. If it's coverage, go with Verizon. Also note that if you don't connect to a 4G LTE network because you're not in the coverage area, you will revert to a respective carrier's 3G network, and AT&T's 3G network is also noticeably faster than Verizon's.

As for T-Mobile and Sprint, both are building 4G LTE networks nationally, but neither has announced when there will be speedier coverage in Utah.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.

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