Technophobe: 4G and the Alaska Wireless Network

Megan Youngren/Sun Star Columnist
September 25, 2012

Those of you with an iPhone 4S might have had 4G up by the reception bar for a while now. You also may have heard that this isn’t really 4G. What is this mystical 4G and why do people disagree about what it means? What is the advantage of the extra G and how are we getting it before much of the Lower 48 does?

4G is a technical term describing a wireless network that can download at speeds of up to 1 gigabit, which is currently infeasible. The wireless technology is there, but there is only so much wired capacity that can be run to each tower. Consider that the fastest home broadband internet connection available in Alaska maxes out at around 20 megabits a second. That’s 50 times slower than the original 4G standard.

So neither 4G’s are real 4G, but that’s nitpicking. What we’re calling 4G is actually HSPA+ and LTE.

HSPA+ has been in Alaska for over a year. It’s faster than standard 3G, but it’s more of a stepping stone as far as wireless infrastructure upgrades go. When you see 4G without also seeing LTE, this is what you’re using.

LTE is short for Long Term Evolution.  It’s as close as we’re going to get to the real deal in the next 5-7 years. It uses less radio spectrum, so more people can use the same tower. It also has a lower ‘ping,’ a measure of time for response.

HSPA+ might have nearly the same speed on paper, but it doesn’t have the real life advantages of 4G LTE.

LTE is coming to Alaska for GCI, Alaska Communications and MTA customers, and is already in Anchorage for AT&T. When Verizon debuts in the state next year, they will start off with LTE coverage. MTA will be using Verizon 4G.

Alaska Communications and GCI are partnering up, and will sell phones that use service from a new company called the Alaska Wireless Network. This company will control all of Alaska Communications and GCI’s radio spectrum licenses, ‘backhaul’ which is the internet lines to the towers and the towers themselves. The longtime rival Alaskan companies teaming up means that they can collaborate on the costs of network expansion, and truly compete with the national companies.

There are basically three wireless competitors now: AT&T by itself, the Alaska Wireless Network consisting of Alaska Communications with GCI and MTA with Verizon. Technically all the companies will compete with one another, but there will be those underlying factors.

Each LTE network uses different frequencies than the other, and voice is still transferred over the old 3G networks. Phones will not be transferable from one network to another yet. But this will only be for the first few years, until phones are manufactured that cover all the LTE frequencies and use the same voice standard.

The advantage for consumers of standardizing cell phone networks is that an off-contract phone can be taken to whichever company offers the best deal. This is how it has been in Europe for the last decade, and their phone plans are cheaper with more variety.

We’re very lucky to have LTE in the state at all, as it isn’t common everywhere in the US unless going through Verizon. With Verizon entering the fray, AT&T’s recently rebuilt Alaska network already enabling LTE in Anchorage with much of the rest of the state to follow, as well as Alaska Communications and GCI teaming up, Alaskans are about to experience a leap in mobile technology. Hopefully, alongside that will be competition that is unseen anywhere else in the US.

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1 Response

    – Verizon, the nation’s actual largest 4G LTE network, might have VoLTE next year.
    — Sprint may beat them to implementation, but their LTE network is not widely deployed.
    – CNET says “Because the call is counted under data, VoLTE could spell the end of phone call minutes on the monthly bill as the service gets lumped together with data.”
    — This is relevant for the ‘Shared data plans’ article.

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