The IT Guy: 4G network brings area up to speed

On April 21, Hilton Head Island and Bluffton got a taste of the future as Verizon flipped the switch on its 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network.

Available since December in major metro areas and airports, Verizon gets points with this geek for upgrading our area ahead of larger markets in South Carolina such as Greenville and Charleston -- which are planned for later this year.

So what's the big deal about Verizon's network?

In a word: speed.

Although all four major mobile carriers have 4G networks, only Verizon offers what I would consider to be a truly next-generation mobile network. They promise download speeds of between 5 and 12 megabits per second, and upload speeds of between 2 and 5 Mbps. Compare that to Verizon's 3G network, which topped out at a relatively pokey 1.4 Mbps down.

So, at long last we finally have true mobile broadband -- wireless speeds comparable to wired cable and DSL connections. Of course, the proof is in the pudding -- Verizon lent me its first 4G smart phone, the Thunderbolt, so I could test out the network.

I was surprised to find that they severely under-promised and over-delivered on their speed claims. At the Packet office in Bluffton, I averaged 30 Mbps downloads -- and during several tests saw bursts of up to 50 Mbps.

Tests on Hilton Head from the bridge all the way to Sea Pines saw the same 30 Mbps average.

Keep in mind these mega-speeds are likely the result of the network only being a few days old and having very few users on it right now. When the network comes under a heavier load, speeds should drop, though my guess is not by much.

So what can you do with all that speed? It was nice to have my Pandora Radio stations streaming without any buffering for once, but the biggest benefit to having high download speeds is that smoothly streaming video on your mobile phone is finally a reality. Videos from the CNN app and YouTube started instantly, a video chat over Qik was seamless, and of course the killer app for me was the ability to watch my Rockies beat the Cubs while out and about without having to go through the hassle of finding an open Wi-Fi hot spot.

Having those fast upload speeds is another great benefit. Now you can actually post that HD video you just shot of your kid doing something cute online for the grandparents to see right from the phone without having to download it to a computer first.

Of course, you must pay the price for all that speed. As with any smartphone, you must add the data plan Verizon has kept the price the same as it was for 3G -- $29.99 for unlimited data. The term "unlimited data" has been a punchline for a while, since previous unlimited plans had a way of actually only being unlimited until you hit a 5 gigabyte cap -- after which you would be charged per gigabyte. To clarify, I asked Verizon Wireless spokesperson Karen Schulz.

"Our unlimited plans are available on our smartphones and are true unlimited plans," she said. "There are currently no caps on data usage and no overage charges."

OK, but in the absence of a cap could a heavy user expect to be throttled down at some point?

"The amount of data that can be used on an 'unlimited' plan is unlimited, but if a customer uses an extraordinary amount of data in a congested area at a congested time of the day, we may limit the throughput of their data connection in certain locations and times so we can ensure the vast majority of customers have a great wireless experience," she said.

As a rule, I would prefer to always be able to do whatever I want with the data I'm paying for, but their position is reasonable.

One additional note: Verizon has a completely different pricing structure for 4G USB modems, tablets, etc. They offer two plans: a 5GB and 10GB for $50 and $80, respectively, with a $10 per gigabyte overage charge.

Verizon's 4G LTE network means that for the first time, the smartphone can be as useful as, if not an outright replacement of, the home computer for many people. As for me, I'll try to find the will to keep going on my suddenly not-good-enough phone, but I have seen the next generation -- and I want it.

Morgan Bonner is Pre-Press Manager and a systems administrator for the Packet and Gazette.