2010-2011, the Greatest Tech Years Ever: Part II

You've read about 4G and LTE. You may have scoffed at my and other critics' warnings against buying an iPhone 4 from Verizon because it isn't 4G.

But I don't get the sense anyone shares my amazement of just how radically the coming of 4G to Verizon and AT&T (and Sprint's year-old WiMAX 4G network) is going to change our lives. In fact, despite all the ground-breaking tech changes that came last year (detailed in Part I of this review), I believe people will remember 2010-2011 primarily for being the foundational years of 4G connectivity.

To review, 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution, a name signifying nothing) is the fourth generation cellular network offering data speeds of between 5-12 megabits per second, which also signifies nothing because speeds in the real world vary ridiculously widely. For example, AT&T's 3G network is technically faster than Verizon's, but in heavy metro areas like New York and San Francisco that assertion would be hard to prove.

How Fast Is Fast?

To over-simplify, think of cellphone networks as highways. 3G is like a four-lane highway where you can travel 55 or 65 miles per hour — maybe 75 if you're the risky type. 4G is more like a 20-lane super freeway, where your phone can speed along at 500 mph.

But like any highway, your speed will be determined by the amount of traffic. If the lanes are jammed bumper-to-bumper, you won't be going anywhere fast.

Thanks to iPhone, AT&T's 3G network is a freeway in endless rush hour, hence the carrier's continual connection inconveniences. Despite assurances to the contrary, Verizon's 3G highway may soon become nearly as congested as millions of new iPhone 4 users merge into the carrier's 3G lanes.

4G LTE networks are empty with plenty of room to grow.

But just how fast is Verizon's 4G LTE network? Check out my informal speed tests here. Bear in mind this is only the first iteration of LTE, as well as the first iteration of Sprint's WiMAX 4G network, which now has three phones operating on it: the original HTC EVO, released last spring, this year's Samsung Epic and, recently, the HTC EVO Shift, an EVO with a slide-out keyboard. Future generations — perhaps three to five years hence — of LTE and WiMAX will be 10 times faster than they are now, which makes them 100 times faster than 3G.

That's when things will get interesting.

4G Portends

Not that they won't be interesting this year. AT&T is due to open its own 4G LTE freeway this summer, and I'm betting the inaugural phone will be an iPhone 4G.

Previous generational increases in cellphone network speeds have impacted only phones and modems. Yes, with 4G connectivity, Web surfing and photo/video downloading (i.e. movies from the internet) and uploading (i.e. sending HD videos you shoot as easily as you email photos you take with the phone's camera today), video chatting and mobile hot spotting all become easier and faster.

But 4G LTE will have a more external impact. What kind? Not even the carriers know what kind of unintended consequences such a fast network portends. Verizon has set up an LTE Innovation Center to explore and solicit ways of exploiting LTE's speedy potential.

This unknown LTE effect isn't unusual. The eventual affect of many tech breakthroughs escaped its original developers. Most famously, Thomas Edison thought his phonograph would make a fabulous dictation machine and for a few other spoken-word uses. (Of course, Edison was deaf so he's excused for not foreseeing the growth of recorded music.)

Relatively more recently, during the tech fecund 1970s, early Sony Betamax VCR advertisements focused on TV show recording rather than the giant movie rental and sale engine it became. The wildest cellphone projections forecast an amazing 200,000 people in a metro area might be subscribers. In the wake of the Altair 8800 and the Apple I, no one could figure out why anyone would want a computer in their home.

Just off the top of my head, though, I'd say LTE may mean no need for mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. The home electronics installation business sees a bright 4G LTE future for remotely controlling devices around the house, home security and OnStar access. Providing expensive so-called "last mile" home internet connectivity to rural areas may be another. Providing your smart TV with a speedy connection without a home Wi-Fi network may be another.

Corporate financial interests may try and curb these uses — Wi-Fi supply companies won't look kindly to their business being undercut by 4G, and unlimited data plans would be essential, which carrier competition may force. But if tech history has taught us anything, the old must move aside for the new.

Cellphone Health

Perhaps the biggest impact 4G LTE will have is how we monitor and maintain our health, thanks to a multi-industry initiative called mHealth, short for "mobile health".

mHealth starts with body sensors that transmit bio-data via Bluetooth to a cellphone then to remote computers someplace, with readings monitored by said computer, with necessary alerts sent to your doctor, a professional monitoring system or a caregiver such as a relative.

Aside from monitoring chronic conditions, the mHealth ecosystem could allow a doctor to perform remote physicals, remote diagnosis and maybe even treatment, shorten or even eliminate the need for long-term — or any term — hospital sales, allow aging baby boomers/soon-to-be seniors to live more independently, and create standards for unified electronic medical records stored in the cloud and accessible anywhere instantly.

Not only would health standards, prevention and care rise, but pressure on the health care system would lessen and billions of dollars could be saved. You can read more about mHealth here.

But only a 4G connection is robust, reliable and ubiquitous enough to handle these heavy bio-data streams.

So as you can see, 4G means more than simply downloading YouTube videos on your cellphone faster. Not to be too hyperbolic, but 4G could mean a whole new way of communicating with the world and living with technology in general. And 2010 and 2011 were the years this change began.

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