We are still in the early days of the new iPhone 5 and so far, so good. I refer to various predictions that with the mass wave of new iPhone devices to the various 4G carriers, that one of them would start to report serious issues at some point. For years it was commonly accepted that in the early days of the iPhone, the 3G network was saturated with data utilization. It was this fact that led to the AT&T being the first major provider to shut down unlimited data plans.
The reputation for congested data networks and signal issues on AT&T’s network continued with the iPhone 4S. Reports of many areas with no signals, black holes in metropolitan areas where one would expect strong coverage, and dropped calls have maintained throughout the life of the iPhone. Common responses to these issues have consisted of tutorials on how to hold the phone properly for good signal, and pointing to the volume of iPhone data usage statistics. While the company admittedly had some historic issues, much of it was due to the focus of at one time being the sole provider for the most popular smartphone. This is 2012 and the iPhone is available on other networks as well, and the rash of new phones being introduced to the networks is distributed and that means other networks are facing tests as well.
The Long Term Evolution (LTE) broadband network is often referred to as 4G. Sprint was the first major carrier to launch a “4G” network, with Verizon, then AT&T following. The technologies are faster upgrades to the traditional 3G networks yet none of them to my knowledge have measured up to the International Telecommunication Union standard baseline 4G definition that includes 100Mb download speeds. What the network providers market as 4G are actually based on faster networks than 3G, in T-Mobile’s case the network is built on 3G technology.
The point here is not to knock on the networks, they are all providing clearly improved data networks, the question is how these networks are geared to stand up to millions of more data-hungry devices in a variety of scenarios. If one were to go by television ads alone, it can be quite confusing. One ad says Verizon is the 4G network of choice, then next says it’s AT&T, the next says T-Mobile is the fastest. In some scenarios, there may be many concurrent users such as in a large metropolitan area and that could create bottlenecks or other issues. Other scenarios such as an exurb where I live, I currently find drops in the 4G data signal as certain boundaries are crossed. There are all types of users including high-demand power users, and sporadic users that are perhaps more well suited with a slower technology. Regardless, the day is coming that all phones will be up on the “4G” standard and the providers have invested billions in standing these networks up.
The fact remains that mass consumer usage remains largely untested on any LTE or 4G network, but that will certainly change in the near-term future. You can bet that there have been lessons learned however as the carriers step up to the challenge. There is a lot riding on the success of this adoption. There is compelling evidence that the explosion of new smartphone customers has come to a very even point, and that most new phone contracts consists of users moving from carrier to carrier. As the networks get tested by this and other popular new devices, support and public communications will be a high focus of consideration and that will continue as the networks and utilization grow. Check your carrier’s coverage maps to get a sure feel for what they report their coverage includes and use that to your best decisions.