Walt Mossberg wrote a techy article about mobile broadband and T-Mobile’s stellar wireless network. Then he got into his “I’ve been testing” mood. Walt’s a great guy but too often gets caught up in his mobile role with the Journal.
In any case I responded with my usual ten paragraph comments about why the wireless carriers are pulling the wool over our eyes and the five reasons why you’ll never get download speeds of 20Mbps on your $600 superphone.
Despite T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network and the continuous argument about WiMax vs. LTE, EVDO-Rev. 10 and all the carrier hype about downloading HD movies to your TV using your smartphone, there’s a lot of bunk banter.
Mobile Broadband Truths and Myths
Do you want the truth? Mobile broadband is only a hot issue because U.S. carriers finally realized the rest of the world (South Korea, included) has had faster wireless networks for years. We folks in the U.S. have put up with turtle-speed wired and wireless broadband while rolling over buckets of voice minutes that no one uses anymore.
To catch up, carriers are doing marketing cartwheels to convince you they have the speediest network since the Ostrich, which Blurtit says can run up to 40 miles an hour–faster than the Emu and the Road Runner. Now if U.S. wireless carriers could do that in Mbps (megabits per second), you could download all of President Obama’s press conferences in two seconds.
But back to the issue at hand: mobile broadband. Here’s why your Droid, iPhone, EVO or Incredible will never–that’s “never”–download at carrier-claimed speeds:
Like wired broadband from your cable or DSL provider, mobile download speeds vary from second-to-second based on:
- Your distance to a cell tower. The greater the distance, the lower the signal strength; the lower the signal strength, the slower the data speed–up or down. Get too far from a cell tower and you can’t even make a phone call. But, of course, iPhone users already know that.
- The network you’re running on. Have a 3G/4G phone? Think again. Like wired broadband, your download and upload speeds are based on the weakest link from point A to point B. Try doing a speed test with your computer. Just tested my Comcast 12Mbps line on my MacBook Pro (6Mbps down; 3.5Mbps up). So you may have 10 bars showing on your shiny new smartphone with a big 3G,. But that’s your network connection to the nearest cell tower. Then your carrier back-hauls your YouTube video request using high-speed lines connecting to the wired Internet, then routes your request to the nearest Google/YouTube server, then makes the video request, then starts uploading the video, then sends the data bits back to the cell tower, which transmits the video to your phone. Whew!. What do you think happens in the process? Yes, now you know why 3G wireless networks frequently deliver 500Kbps rather than 3Mbps. There’s a lot going on under the hood. Oh, I forgot the weather. Sorry.
- Your souped-up $500 Android 2.1 smartphone with the fast browser, Snapdragon processor, 400 MB internal memory, 2000Mah battery , 4 inch internal antenna, etc. Even if you have the best components and you’re not running 15 applications at the same time, your phone, once it receives the YouTube video, has to process all that data and display it on your screen using your phone’s browser. As the resolution of your screen increases, the more time it takes to display the video (all those millions of pixels). Your browser speed is also critical which is why cloud services like SkyFire are hot. SkyFire off-loads a lot of the video processing to its servers, then delivers compressed data back to your phone.
- Good news. Most mobile phone users don’t need the speed. What? What are you saying. Is this a carrier plot? Yes and no. The majority of U.S. mobile users still use feature phones with WAP browsers downloading small amounts of data. Even newer feature phones with small screen displays use 1/20th the bandwidth of an iPhone, Android or other smartphone user with a 4″ display. At 20% smartphone penetration, therefore, the carriers have a couple of years to ratchet-up network performance.
So as you see bold headlines on the Web or in your favorite print publication about wireless spectrum shortage and mobile broadband, remember it’s all a myth…at least for now.
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