How 4G mobile networks are changing our lives

One of the leaders in 4G, VerizonWhen the iPhone 5 was announced, many people wondered how its many incremental changes would allow Apple to take the lead again in the smartphone market.

Of all the changes, there is one feature that will be the most important, and will most impact the impression of the public: 4G.

The 4G radio upgrade that allows the iPhone to access this much faster internet connection (in some cases, faster than the cable connection in our houses) will completely change the user experience in more ways that we realize. The same can be said for any mobile device that is 4G capable, and as more companies upgrade their technology, this new connection standard will revolutionize the way we interact with the world.

A brief history of network connection speeds

To understand the gravity of the 4G breakthrough, we have to look back a bit at the first connection revolution: broadband internet access. When the internet first began, and users eventually got access to it right from their own homes, the dial-up connection was extraordinarily slow. You had to wait minutes just to load the login page for email, not to mention the fact that you had to give up a phone line to do it. This meant that most people didn’t use the internet to constantly surf content, and webpages were basic so that things were easier to load over the poor connection.

When the broadband connection was created and the technology became more and more popular, it completely changed the way that companies created content online. Sites like YouTube and Facebook were becoming media moguls, and the availability of a faster connection opened up options for companies that were not previously available. They used these new options to completely revamp the usefulness of the internet, and it changed the way we interacted with the world.

All of a sudden, it became more convenient to jump on a shopping website to find a product than it was to go to a physical store.

All of a sudden, it became more convenient to jump on a shopping website to find a product than it was to go to a physical store. Information from Google was mere seconds away, so going to the library became obsolete. Watching a movie was as simple as a few clicks, and some momentary loading, the need to run to the store for a rental was all but eliminated. Even chatting with your friends became easier to do with your internet connection, so social sites exploded all over as people logged in from home.

A ton of content started to become available, and over the evolution of the speed in the past ten years, websites like Netflix and Hulu have been able to build their media-based companies because of this better technology. Even things like email and search have become so easily accessible and convenient that it is our preferred way of contacting people and finding information.

If the slow speeds of previous internet connections had stayed the same, almost none of the things that we do now would be possible. Even if the information was out there, nobody would have the patience to access it, and no company would invest time in creating content for something so difficult to access.

The mobile revolution

The next biggest jump in how we access information and interact with the world was the smartphone. Phones such as the iPhone began to bring search, maps, and informational apps to the finger tips of their owners. This certainly has been a revolution as smartphones and tablets have become faster and more reliable, and more interaction with the internet has been on-the-go. These incredibly convenient tools that were available online (search, money conversion, Wikipedia, distance calculators, etc) were starting to be put into sleek and easy to use smartphone apps. The added convenience of having them on your phone brought their usability to a new level, and the smartphone market sky rocketed.

However, when smartphones leave the safe haven of a high speed wifi connection for a standard mobile data network, things go downhill pretty quickly. It is something that we have become somewhat used to, and we forgive the slow network speeds because we realize this is the price for the convenience of accessing this information while being mobile. Sure, it might take a little extra time to load those pictures or get your Google search result, but it is much better than not having any access at all.

4G is going to change all of that in the same way that broadband changed the way we use our computers and the internet.

4G is going to change all of that in the same way that broadband changed the way we use our computers and the internet. One of the easiest ways to see this is to take Netflix as an example. Their apps for Android and iOS are fantastic, and when you have a wifi connection you have thousands upon thousands of video options for entertainment. When you leave that wifi connection, your willingness to wait for that video to buffer becomes much less, and in the end you end up using it almost not at all. This is just like dial-up, it would load if you were willing to have some patience, but for many websites it just wasn’t worth the wait.

With the faster 4G connection, once again, sites such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and even Facebook, are going to be able to pump out media to their users. It will also allow every single website to increase their complexity, and put out mobile versions of their sites that will be much more satisfying to the user. The lag that we experience now has already started to become a thing of the past, and children that are young now will not be able to remember the time they couldn’t get access to a site or video instantly via a mobile device.

How mobile device companies are cashing in

Since 4G is fairly new and much of the public isn’t entirely sure what it means for them, companies like Apple are cashing in on the new technology. In the iPhone 5, the improved processor will certainly add some juice for dealing with software running on the phone, but the 4G connectivity will pick up any remaining slack. To many users, this will be all part of the “Apple experience”, and many will attribute the improved speeds to be the result of the processor and the device itself.

Instead of marveling at the speed the phone brings down data in the browser, people will think, “Wow, Apple made the iPhone 5 a lot faster!” The same can be said about any other 4G device that is out on the market today.

Meanwhile, we have moved past the strict need for faster processors on phones as most new mobile devices can handle a very significant amount of software and usage without having a lag. Incremental processor updates will certainly still help development of software, but the 4G network is what is going to vastly improve the user experience.

4G’s impact on the future of software

One of the interesting aspects of this improved connection is just how much it will change the software world in the future. Right now, we see many companies transitioning to cloud-based solutions, but with a typical 3G connection, this can be very limited. With faster internet connection speeds, companies like Apple and Microsoft have the ability to build cloud-based operating systems that are shared between the mobile platforms and the computers.

Apple’s mobile operating system iOS and their desktop operating system Mac OS have been converging for years now, and with Windows 8, Microsoft is taking that a step in that direction as well. Processors in mobile will certainly still play a role in this development, but the fact is that these companies can take a huge load off of the devices backs by creating server-side software that is network dependent.

With potential 100Mbps download speeds, downloading pieces of your desktop operating system doesn’t seem too far fetched anymore.

The dreaded data caps

The biggest concern right now is how mobile carriers are capitalizing on this improved network connection. Using incredible amount of data on a network is something that is relatively new, and knowing that more people are going to be switching to 4G for the speed, companies are beginning to charge more for data instead of less. Verizon and AT&T previously offered unlimited data plans for around $30 per month, and for anyone who used their mobile device a lot, this was more than worth it. However, in recent years they have implemented a max plan of 2GB for around the same price, and for these years it hasn’t caused that much of an uproar. Unless you were a diehard mobile device addict, having 2GB of data seemed like more than enough.

Many people hoped that, as faster data connections were made available, data caps would also increase to support the increased throughput. It isn’t very hard to use 2GB of mobile data anymore, and with increasingly data-intensive applications coming out every day, it is more likely that even the average person will use 2GB in a month.

With the increasing popularity of 4G, mobile carriers seem to be trying to squeeze every penny out of their customers.

With the increasing popularity of 4G, mobile carriers seem to be trying to squeeze every penny out of their customers. Capped data has continued to be the norm, but it won’t stay that way for very long. The more that people transition to 4G, and the more data that is used, the more people will start to demand better prices for it.

The same thing happened with text messaging once people started to realize how obnoxiously over priced an individual text message cost. Now, unlimited text messaging plans are the most efficient, and they have made text messaging one of the preferred ways of contact for millions of people across the country.

Hopefully the same thing will happen with mobile data, but we do have to take into consideration that the phone companies are running out of things to charge for. Now that the primary use of mobile phones has changed from voice calls to things like streaming video, sharing rich media, and browsing the web, carriers want to find new areas to rake in the profit. Unfortunately, for the time being, data is that area.

So where does that leave us?

Even with data caps, 4G will be a driving power behind the technology of tomorrow. The increased network speed will unlock thousands of potential options for small and large businesses alike. Our transition from laptop devices to fully capable mobile devices will continue, and with speeds this impressive, we will see the transition faster than previously thought.

Before long, something like Google’s Project Glass, with an augmented reality system that constantly shows you information about the world around you, will be an every day item. With more powerful processors, and better hardware, companies have been trying to pack all of their punches into on board software. Now, that approach has become much more flexible, and our future hardware world will be most likely be much better complimented by full feature options available virtually instantly through your mobile network.

Image Credit: Flickr.com Creative Commons

  • Julien

    Your article is very interressing…!
    I like the way you did an overview of the evolution of our habits related with the speed of our connections.

    (sorry for my english, my first language is french…!)

    • Scott Entwistle

      Thank you Julien, I also found it very interesting while I was doing my research :) it’s really funny to look back and see how incredibly limited we were compared to now.

      Also, your English is great! No apology needed :)