Business

Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

4G networks hit the afterburners

Shutterstock/File

How fast is your broadband connection? Today, that partly depends on whether you are surfing the Internet in your living room or out on the street. Most smartphones, even with their 4G connections, still can’t match the download speeds of a good wired broadband connection.

That’s about to change. Some new phones can download data at cable-like speeds in hundreds of US cities, including Boston. The cellular companies haven’t been talking this up, probably because many of its customers don’t have those latest phones. Still, that massive boost in speed is waiting for those who can get the right hardware and cellular network.

For example, I took a Samsung Note 8 on the T-Mobile network and, using the industry-standard Speedtest app from Ookla, compared download speeds to an iPhone 6 running on the 4G LTE network of rival AT&T. The contrast is remarkable. Here in downtown Boston, AT&T delivered respectable download speeds of up to 22 megabits on the iPhone. But the Samsung phone, connected to T-Mobile, was chugging along at 116 megabits — faster even than my home Comcast connection.

Advertisement

No, this isn’t 5G, the long-awaited wireless technology that’s supposed to deliver gigabit-plus download speeds through thin air. That’s still a few years off.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In the meantime, America’s wireless carriers are wringing more speed out of the existing 4G LTE standard, using several key improvements — advanced antenna systems, better data compression software, and a feature that streams data over several radio frequencies at once. The result is a new version of LTE that’s a whole lot faster. It’s been called “gigabit-class LTE,” because the technology has delivered that kind of download speed in tests. Don’t expect gigabit speeds in everyday use, but 100 megabits is more than most people will ever need from a cellphone.

Of course, you need the right cellphone. Only the newest units are compatible, and not all, for that matter. For instance, the new iPhones Apple just rolled out do not have the antennas necessary to fully exploit the new services. But if you bought this year’s Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8, you’re already good to go.

All the big wireless companies have announced plans to roll out these super LTE services over the next year or so, to tide us over until 5G comes along. T-Mobile, once the feeblest of all cellular networks, has launched gigabit-class LTE in 430 markets, including Boston. AT&T is slowly rolling out an upgrade that it calls 5G Evolution, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with 5G. It’s supposed to be in about 20 cities by year’s end, but a spokeswoman tells me Boston hasn’t been switched on yet. Sprint is planning deployment in the first half of 2018, while Verizon says it has wired up 560 of its US markets.

You can find one explanation for the increased speed attached to lampposts all over town. Verizon and five other companies that build network towers have gotten permission to install more than 700 “small cells” on poles around the streets of Boston. Unlike the big cell sites you see on towers and rooftops, these cells are small enough to stick on a pole every couple of blocks, creating a dense web of signal boosters for your smartphone.

Advertisement

The antennas are typically housed in an inconspicuous cylinder or box a few feet long, so most pedestrians probably don’t even notice them. Underneath they plug into underground fiber optic networks, provide a clean, strong signal and relieving much of the load on the primary cell networks.

The result is that in some neighborhoods of Boston you can now get faster Internet connections outside on your smartphone than inside on your computer.

“The end state goal for broadband — whether it’s mobile or at home — is that it’s just there,” said Boston chief information officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

Next comes 5G, promising real-world speeds of one gigabit or more. And it might come sooner than you think. Verizon plans to launch such a network next year in Sacramento, to deliver Internet service to homes and businesses. The company hasn’t said whether it plans a similar offering in Boston. As rival companies lease small cell networks of their own, much of the city could be blanketed with multiple 5G providers in just a few short years.

Most Americans have one broadband provider, or none at all, largely because it costs so much to put fiber in the ground. But if 5G works as advertised, it will slash the cost of building high-speed networks and make the home broadband business as competitive as cellular.

Advertisement

But that’s a few years away. For now, I’m willing to settle for 100 megabits in my shirt pocket.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.