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Wireless carriers have started to push their new 4G networks. The carriers say that these new networks are amazing, and will allow you to do more, faster, than ever before. What they do not tell you is that you will not be able to use the new 4G networks for very much. That is because the wireless carriers (with the exception of Sprint, which offers truly unlimited 4G connections) have imposed arbitrary limits on their 4G networks. For the average user, this limit is set at 2 GB per month. As a result, just about everything that you would use the 4G network for will put you over your limit.
This unfortunate fact is the result of a combination between fast 4G networks that deliver a lot of data and low limits on how much data you can use. The 4G speed means that you hit your cap even faster than you would on the existing 3G network. How much faster? Well, Verizon advertises its 4G network can deliver top speeds between 5 and 12 Mbps. AT&T claims it can deliver 6 Mbps. At those speeds, you will hit your monthly limit in less than one hour.
Of course, you may not think about your connection in terms of how long you can use it at full blast. Instead, you might think about it in terms of what you can actually do with the connection.
Under AT&T and Verizon’s 2 GB monthly limit, you could download half of an HD movie from iTunes before hitting your limit. Alternatively, you could download two 45-minute HD TV shows. If you shot some video you wanted to share with friends, you might be able to upload 2 ten-minute videos. Keep in mind that any one of those things would essentially use up your data cap for the month, so you would not be able to do anything else with your smartphone (like get your email or get directions) without going over the limit.
Even streaming would be extremely limited under the caps. You could stream about 4 hours of content from Netflix (again, assuming you did not need your phone for anything else that month), or less than 30 minutes of music per day from a subscription music service.
Ultimately, these arbitrary caps make the new 4G connections a waste of money. The things that will not drive you quickly towards a cap (like email, directions, and light web browsing) work well on existing 3G connections. The things that are made possible by 4G connections, like streaming movies or moving large files around, will drive you over your cap so quickly that you will not bother to do them very often.
That means that for most people 4G with arbitrary data limits offered by AT&T and Verizon are a waste of money.
To learn more about the problems of matching low data limits with fast wireless speeds, click here to read 4G + Data Caps = Magic Beans.
To read questions that all ISPs (wireless and wired) need to answer before they impose arbitrary data limits, click here to read a recent letter to the FCC.
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