Cell Phone Confusion: What is 4G?

What is 4g? Or 4G LTE

Every time you turn on the TV or radio you hear about 4G networks. You know what a network is, but what is 4G? And why are they pushing it so hard? 4G is something that almost every cellular network is offering, but no one truly tells you what it is and then when you read the advertising it just leads to more confusion.

Saturday Night Live hit the nail on the head when they did this commercial parody for Verizon 4G LTE.

AT&T ads claim that they are the nation’s largest 4G network and Verizon ads claim that they are the largest 4G LTE and America’s fastest 4G network. How can both providers claim to be the largest network when they both offer 4G? Doesn’t one of them have to be wrong?

Both of them are correct. It’s because they are both offering slightly different things. It’s sort of like going into a restaurant and ordering a steak, are you going to get a fillet mignon, a sirloin or a T-bone? All of them are steaks, and all of them are delicious — they are all just slightly different. The term 4G simply refers to the fourth generation of wireless technology networks. There are actually several different types of 4G networks.

What is 4G?

Let’s start with some basic history so you know what 4G is.

  • 1G was the first generation of analog wireless phones that were introduced in the 1980s.
  • 2G was introduced in the ’90s with a digital signal, which allowed for data transmission and text messaging was born.
  • A high demand for increased data transmission speed led to the birth of the 3G network in the 2000s.
  • As cell phone and wireless devices continue to inundate our society and become a major part of our lives, demand for higher transfer speeds for Internet and games has also increased, thus creating a need for a faster network. This demand led to the birth of the 4G network.

Now back to the original question. How can both providers claim to be the largest network? They can both claim it because they both are the largest networks offering their particular variety of 4G.

Essentially, the term “4G” means the “fourth generation” of cell phone service.

4G LTE Networks

LTE stands for “Long Term Evolution” and is the newest and fastest variety of 4G network. It is estimated to be about 10-times faster than the 3G networks and is fantastic for downloading or streaming. The speed of 4G LTE is said to rival many home Internet connections.

This network type is offered by both Verizon and AT&T. Verizon’s LTE network is enormous and spans across the country in over 370 markets. It is larger than AT&T’s LTE network, which now only covers 51 markets.

HSPA+ Networks

HSPA+, or Evolved High-Speed Packet Access, is another type of 4G network. HSPA+ is much slower than LTE and is estimated to be about three times faster than 3G. AT&T carries an HSPA+ network across the country; Verizon does not have an HSPA+ network.

By marketing both the HSPA+ and the 4G LTE networks together as their 4G offering, AT&T provides more coverage than Verizon. However, you may not be able to get the superfast speeds offered by the 4G LTE network.


Most phones are backwards compatible with the slower networks. When purchasing a new 4G phone be sure to check the technology it works with. If it is an HSPA+ phone it will not work at the LTE speeds even if you are in an area covered by an LTE network. An LTE phone is going to be able to pick up the LTE network (where available) and all of its slower siblings.

4G Networks

There are several versions of 4G networks out there; the two major ones are LTE and HSPA+. LTE is now the fastest 4G network and is offered by both AT&T and Verizon. Verizon has the largest LTE network in the nation thus they also offer what is currently the fastest known 4G connection.

AT&T offers both LTE and HSPA+ 4G technology, this allows them to offer a wider 4G network coverage than Verizon. But the LTE speed is only available in a limited area. Both networks are working diligently to expand their 4G coverage and new regions are continuously being added.

Before you buy a 4G phone and network plan, be sure to ask exactly what type of network you are getting and make sure that their coverage works for you.

Now, next time someone looks confused and you hear them ask, “Just what is 4G?” You can give them the straight simple answer of a faster wireless network — or look like a genius and give them the full rundown!

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