Tech Break: Going mobile

Welcome to the new year! Apologies for the lack of Tech Breaks in past Oredigger issues. Hopefully my schedule will allow for a weekly article again. For this week, let’s look at what’s hot in the wireless market, based on data that I collected late last semester and bolstered over the break.

A lot has happened over the past couple of months in Denver on the cellular front. T-Mobile has upgraded its network to HSPA+, as has AT&T, and both Sprint and Verizon have kicked off their own “4G” networks, with the former using WiMAX on the 2500MHz band and the latter LTE on former broadcast TV spectrum around 700MHz. CricKet has also made a few upgrades over the past year or so, though they have not adopted a new technology to do so. Due to the above enhancements, the best cellular network for you is probably different than it was a year ago. But who exactly is “the best?”

The answer to this question would be Verizon by a long shot if this article were written a few months in the future at a university in Denver proper; Big Red, the nation’s largest wireless provider, currently blows competing networks away in terms of raw speed with its LTE network…if you’re covered. Coverage shouldn’t be an issue, thanks to Verizon’s low-frequency spectrum position, which can see through walls and leap tall buildings, but for some reason a significant portion of Golden shows up in a lighter shade of red on Verizon’s coverage map, indicating 3G-only service.

To be fair, 3G isn’t bad, and even such upcoming devices as the Verizon iPhone top out at that network speed, but you won’t get an experience that rivals, or even exceeds, cable internet…as long as you don’t download too much. One other current caveat: Verizon’s LTE device lineup is limited right now to two bulky USB modems, though portable hotspots, notebooks and feature-packed Android smartphones will be available in the coming months.

The next contender is T-Mobile, which has its own set of caveats. The provider, which tends to be less expensive than everyone else, has done a great job extending next-generation cellular technology to Denver and Golden…except on some parts of campus, where getting a signal of any sort is an iffy proposition. That said, if your T-Mobile signal is bad on-campus, your WiFi signal is likely excellent, and a few of T-Mobile’s higher-end phones are more than happy to shuttle calls over WiFi rather than the cellular network.

This brings us to a strength of T-Mobile: their Android-based lineup is excellent and growing by the month. The carrier, America’s fourth-largest, also has a weakness in this area: no iPhone. On the other hand, lack of Apple’s cell phone means that, combined with T-Mobile’s aggressive upgrade strategy, 3G service on T-Mobile is snappy wherever it can be found. Note that I used “snappy” instead of “fast”; in Golden speeds are limited to a little over a megabit per second down and 600 kilobits per second on uploads, with download speeds of five to ten times that available a few miles to the east. Yet T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network allows for latency (packet delay, or lag) that in my experience is lower than that of any other cellular provider in the area, including Verizon.

AT&T in Denver falls into the realm of “okay, I guess.” They have the iPhone, and their network appears to be upgraded to HSPA+, however unlike T-Mobile, Verizon and CricKet all data traffic goes through Dallas before hitting the Internet, rather than using a Denver network onramp. Additionally, side-by-side comparisons between AT&T and T-Mobile on identical equipment reveal that AT&T’s “snappiness factor” is just plan lower than T-Mobile’s. The is despite AT&T’s 100% lead over T-Mobile in upload speeds in the area (though both networks fall far short of what Verizon can do) and AT&T’s slight download speed lead over T-Mobile in Golden, though that advantage is negated by slower speeds in the rest of the Denver metro. All that said, if you want raw speed on an iPhone, AT&T wins over Verizon, and AT&T’s HSPA+ Android lineup, arriving in the next few months, is not bad. Just don’t come crying when your calls drop; you’ve been warned.

Sprint was the first company to unofficially launch a “4G” network in Denver, though their official launch was a rather late December 19. Unfortunately their 2500MHz WiMAX network is by far the touchiest of all the carriers’, vanishing or degrading significantly as soon as you walk inside any reasonably robust building. On the other hand, their coverage map is very detailed if you go to www.clear.com to look at it, and their rate plans aren’t as expensive as those of Verizon and AT&T if you want to talk, text and surf on a smartphone. Their 3G coverage of the Mines campus is also perfect; they have a cell site sitting atop Alderson Hall. Just be forewarned that WiMAX, while fast, is not as available as LTE or HSPA+ from other carriers, and that the technology is a battery sink for phones that support it, which include my own Samsung Epic 4G. Yes, I’m a Sprint customer, however if you call Denver your home they just aren’t the best choice.

That leaves CricKet. The low-cost unlimited provider has a network on par with AT&T’s and Sprint’s 3G networks in the Denver metro, maybe a little better or worse depending on the specific area. They aren’t planning on going 4G in the immediate future, so what you see is what you get, but they also don’t require a contract to use their service, so if you decide to switch carriers six months in there is no penalty for doing so. Their plans are also cheap; $55 flat gives you unlimited everything on an Android smartphone, though data usage is throttled after a gigabyte of usage and service outside CricKet’s coverage area may or may not be 3G, though it will still be unlimited. One hangup is that the provider’s Android lineup is none too spectacular; the Huawei Ascend suffers from a finnicky touch screen and a headset jack instead of a headphone port, while the Sanyo/Kyocera Zio runs an old version of the Android OS and has user interface problems of its own. Fortunately the carrier will be adding a couple of new smartphones to its lineup in the next few months, including its edition of the LG Optimus One, a midrange Android device that is available on almost every other carrier already…except AT&T.

With the above information, your decision on where to get your next cell phone should be a bit easier. However times and technologies change, so the lineup may be different next semester, or even a few months from now. As always, drop me a line at ilittman@mymail.mines.edu with questions or comments about this article, or post them on the online version of this article. See you next week!


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