4G LTE: One Writer’s Switching Plans: Bye-Bye AT&T, Hello Verizon

After having been an AT&T customer for 12 years–it started with PacBell Wireless in San Jose, California, which evolved to Cingular, which then became the ‘new’ AT&T–I am finally ready to leave the AT&T family to say hello to Verizon Wireless with the HTC Thunderbolt, the carrier’s first 4G LTE smartphone, on March 17. Unlike what many analysts had predicted, my switch to Verizon isn’t about ‘switching‘ now that the carrier is also carrying an iPhone–instead, with 4G, I’ll be shelving my love affair for iOS. Instead, it’s about openness, customer service, cell service, and fast mobile broadband thanks to a nascent and expanding 4G network. It’s a geek’s dream come true, right?

The grass is definitely greener on the other side of the fence. Promised speeds of 5-12 Mbps on the downlink side and 2-5 Mbps on the uplink side means instantaneous search results delivered on devices like the forthcoming HTC Thunderbolt, tablets like the Xoom that promises to deliver ‘the full web experience,’ and devices like the forthcoming Samsung and Novatel mobile broadband routers that create instant hotspots whenever make the dream of a hyper-connected, instant-on, always-on world a reality. However, as happily optimistic as I am for March 17th, the launch date of the HTC Thunderbolt, I am also realistic about my choices out there.

With Verizon’s 4G LTE network, the only promised 4G smartphones, at least in the near term, are those running on the Android platform. Microsoft’s barely rolling out CDMA support so it may take a while longer for Windows Phone 7 to arrive on 4G and iOS won’t be 4G-ready, at least in terms of LTE support, until at least another year. Research in Motion has tossed the term LTE around when we had last spoken with them in regards to a BlackBerry PlayBook, so I am optimistic that an LTE BlackBerry smartphone is at least being developed. For now though, unless you’re married to the Android platform, or require just connectivity via USB modems or mobile hotspot routers like the upcoming MiFi 3G/4G unit, 4G LTE is still a niche offering for those who don’t mind Android.

SIM is present, but there won’t be a world-phone 4G LTE smartphone for a while. Moreover, despite SIM card support with Verizon’s transition to LTE, another problem that users will encounter is that carriers may be utilizing different bands and frequencies for 4G than other carriers. For example, Verizon will be using its newly acquired 700 MHz spectrum for 4G. This means, at least in the near term, roaming won’t be possible as other carriers may use other frequencies, both in the U.S. and abroad. For roaming and a truly world-phone 4G LTE smartphone to arrive, we’ll have to wait a few more years to see what other countries and carriers are doing with 4G. Then, manufacturers may begin to design and build smartphones with multi-bands for 4G, like the tri-band HSPA phones today on 3G, that will be capable of roaming when traveling overseas.

Broken promises by AT&T is the impetus for my switch. For one, the carrier’s promise for 4G is sorely lacking, if not misleading. After having launched the HTC Inspire 4G and the Motorola Atrix 4G–the Samsung Infuse 4G is coming soon–upload speeds on those devices are clocking in at 300 Kbps, which is under the 1-2 Mbps of 3G devices like the iPhone 4. Also, further frustrating early adopters of AT&T’s 4G network, while those 4G HSPA+ devices promise download speeds–which is what’s important for web browsing, downloading, and watching YouTube videos, for example–of up to 14.4 Mbps, real world usage is far under what’s theoretically possible and is under a quarter of that quoted rate. While I get up to 3 Mbps on my iPhone 4 on a good day in the San Francisco, CA area, AT&T’s 4G smartphones give me download speeds of around 2 Mbps. As AT&T has done major repair to its reputation since the iPhone’s launch by admitting faults with its network and strengthening its network to deliver quality, the carrier in one quick move had destroyed its reputation with me.

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Additionally, the AT&T stores in my area won’t even sell me a 4G smartphone without a contract, even as a long-term customer of well over a decade. According to AT&T, it is reserving its popular phones for those who are eligible and willing to sign a contract and can’t sell me one, even at full, un-subsidized pricing.

AT&T says it is working on its network to remedy the issue, but for now, things don’t look so rosy. AT&T will also be moving to LTE for 4G in the latter part of this year, which is the same mobile broadband protocol that Verizon is now rolling out. However, it is likely that AT&T’s devices won’t be able to roam on Verizon’s network and Verizon’s phones can’t use AT&T’s network due to different frequency support by the carriers.

So what am I giving up for joining Verizon? As an iOS user, I will most likely give up my iPhone experience. While it’s true that Verizon does now offer the iPhone 4–and will most likely offer the iPhone 5 and future generations of iOS smartphones–I am not switching to Verizon for a 3G smartphone. Current speculations posit that the Apple iPhone 5 will be a 3G smartphone, possibly a dual-mode 3G smartphone utilizing Qualcomm’s Gobi chip so that a single iPhone model can be programmed for either Verizon or AT&T rather than requiring two separate models for the different carriers. That said, I am holding out until Apple introduces a 4G LTE smartphone on Verizon.

Additionally, while I am an iOS user, users of other platforms will most likely be giving up the experience of webOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, and Maemo/MeeGo when they decide that network speed outweighs the perceived benefits of any single mobile platform. For me, as I am mostly tethered to my laptop and spend most of my time with a laptop, a mobile OS choice becomes secondary to the network and speeds that I’ve come to expect with 4G LTE. For that reason, I’ve decided to, for now, to weigh my decision more heavily on network speed as 4G LTE speeds are far in excess of AT&T’s 3G or 4G speed claims at this time. Additionally, unlike with AT&T, Verizon’s under-promise and over-deliver philosophy is humble and honest rather than misleading and incorrect. However, there will also be limitations, which we’ll discuss later in this editorial, to the Android platform, and some will have to think twice before giving up their beloved mobile platform in order to experience 4G on Android.

With 4G LTE, however, Verizon is closing the gap between its network and AT&T. For the first time, Verizon’s smartphones will now feature simultaneous voice and data, a unique selling point AT&T’s been using to keep people on its network rather than switching to Verizon when the CDMA iPhone debuted. Also, Verizon will also be using SIM card, another feature that was unique to GSM networks, like those employed by AT&T and T-Mobile USA. While Verizon’s 4G SIM cannot in the near term be loaded into any device for those who travel or need to roam, it does bring the added benefit of ease of switching devices within Verizon’s network. You can’t for now put a 4G Verizon SIM into an LTE AT&T phone when AT&T makes those devices available, but if you’re a geek and can’t decide between the Droid Bionic and the Thunderbolt you can now get both and just pop the SIM back and forth so you can switch out your devices easily. The old way with Verizon 3G required you to log into your Verizon account or call customer support to change out the electronic serial number associated with your account. Now, like on AT&T, you’ll be able to just swap out SIM cards.

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Why am I making the switch now instead of waiting? For those looking to hop onto 4G, switching now versus later is important for one reason: mobile data caps. Verizon Wireless, at the this time, is still promising unlimited data for the Thunderbolt. Though it’s unclear when the carrier will implement caps or meters, it hasn’t been shy in the past of saying that it will move towards a model like AT&T’s and do away with unlimited data plan. With 4G, this is more important than with 3G. With faster data speeds, I’ve noticed that I consume more data on my laptop while being away from a WiFi network now that data is faster. Rather than saving my video watching for later when I get home to a faster WiFi connection when I was on a 3G connection, I find that 4G data speeds are fast enough where I am now moving towards the instant gratification model and watching videos and browsing more when connected to Verizon’s 4G LTE USB modem. On a smartphone and on a tablet, having 4G data may lead to even more content consumption now that the speed bottleneck is gone, making unlimited data plans even more valuable. I recommend users to jump now, if and while they can, before Verizon does away with unlimited. Of course, if you’re a data hog, you should read the fine print as Verizon still reserves the right to throttle your data speed.

Will there be content to consume? The problem with having faster mobile broadband data speeds with 4G is that the bottleneck shifts away from the network, in terms of speed as described in the above paragraph, to the platform. Instead of network limitation to what you can do, 4G shifts the paradigm to the platform in defining what you can’t do. With Android, what’s lacking now is support for various services that can, and should be able to, take advantage of faster speeds, such as streaming services from cable networks, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. As it stands currently, Android doesn’t currently have system-wide DRM so when Hulu Plus and Netflix comes, it will only come to certain Android devices where the manufacturer implements additional copyright protection to streaming videos. Until that day comes, I will be missing my movie and TV show streaming that I’ve enjoyed on iOS, a paradox that’s created by a capable mobile network that’s limited by the mobile mechanisms of Android.

Also, what is the point of boasting about delivering the full web experience when the Android browser still identifies itself to web servers and hosts that it’s a mobile browser? Even on Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the tablet OS of Android, the browser’s user agent ID as a mobile browser prevents content from Hulu from working. Until Hulu Plus gets released, Android users are blocked from viewing videos through Hulu sites despite support of Flash.

Other media content is also missing from Android as Google doesn’t yet have a movie, TV show, video, and music download store. For Android to rival iOS in the multimedia and content department, Google will have to build a decent iTunes competitor, and the company is starting to. With Google Books now appearing as a hub on Android Market, and Google rumored to be working on a music service, we’ll begin to hopefully see more from Google. Until that happens, Android users are on their own when it comes to buying content on the go to keep them entertained–sans Hulu Plus, sans Netflix, and sans iTunes. Shame.

Moreover, when compared to iOS, there are still a number of apps that are missing from Android.

Hacks and community will sorely be missed. Despite being open, or at least claiming to be open, Android still comes with some limitations that leaves me looking behind at iOS. Right now, my daily device is split between a GSM iPhone 4, an HTC EVO Shift 4G on Sprint’s 4G Now Network using WiMax technologies, and a Motorola Atrix 4G on AT&T. The good part about transitioning to an Android device on any carrier but AT&T is that most other carriers leave Android open, rather than locking it down. That means, on Verizon, an Android phone can install apps from third-party sources whereas AT&T limits apps that are capable of being installed on a device to those obtained from Android Market; it’s unclear how Amazon’s Appstore will be affected by AT&T’s decision and whether or not the carrier and the digital services provider can ink a deal before the Android Market rival Appstore launches for Amazon. Additionally, another area are the tweaks and hacks. With a robust community on iOS, a lot of the limitations of that platform can be solved through jailbreaking the device. Want the 20 MB app download limit to be gone? There’s a jailbreak for that. How about fooling your iPhone to thinking it’s on a WiFi connection when it’s actually connected to AT&T’s mobile broadband connection? There’s also a jailbreak for that. These simple hacks do not exist on Android despite rooting availability, at least not yet, and they provide ample use.

When developers develop new apps for a given platform, they become more complacent to the platform’s and carriers’ wishes. That means that large, data intensive files, downloads, and uploads are often vetted through a carrier or platform. For example, when Sling Media launched the Slingplayer app for iOS, the company had prevented 3G streaming through an iphone and limited streaming video to only WiFi use. The jailbreak into fooling the iPhone into thinking it was connected to WiFi remedied that problem until AT&T and Sling Media worked out some kinks to allow Sling Media to stream video. Additionally, with FaceTime’s WiFi limitation, I am able to stream over 3G with adequate and reasonable quality that I can use the jailbreak utility into deceiving my iPhone so I can video chat with loved ones from the beach, for example, where WiFi is non-existent but I am still covered by AT&T’s 3G network. On Android, these system hacks and utilities aren’t available yet, and I am left to the will and whims of Google and Verizon (or whatever carrier I am on).

Concluding thoughts: I was very impressed with Verizon’s strong 4G LTE network. The network won Notebook.com’s Best of CES award for its aggressive roll-out plans earlier this year, and I am looking forward to experiencing it for the first time on a mobile handset. 4G LTE isn’t perfect yet, given the compromises that I have to make, but in the end network speed is important enough for me to make my iOS concessions until Apple delivers a Verizon LTE iPhone. I am now ready to pay AT&T my early termination fees (ETF) on my family plan. Are you ready to make the jump? What’s stopping you or what are some of the attractive features of 4G you’re looking forward to?