Faster data networks being rolled out by cell-phone carriers will enable new services on phones and other wireless devices, including flawless streaming video, teleconferencing and real-time Internet applications.
The technology that will allow this is called 4G. You may have heard the term mentioned in ads. It actually is a standard being worked on by the International Telecommunications Union - Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R), but services labeled 4G may or may not achieve the speeds dictated by that standard.
What 4G means in common usage is fourth generation, the successor to 3G and 2G cell-phone data networks.
As is so often the case with cell-phone providers, they have not agreed on the technology. Right now Sprint, in cooperation with a company called Clearwire, offers 4G service based on a technology called WiMax. It is like Wi-Fi but with a much greater range.
Verizon uses technology called LTE, standing for long-term evolution. AT&T also will use LTE technology.
More confusing, T-Mobile uses a system called HSPA+, which it calls 4G although it does not hew to the official standard.
What is allowing 4G now is that the carriers are beginning to use the 700 MHz spectrum they licensed in a 2008 auction by the Federal Communications Commission. The spectrum was freed up in the conversion from analog to digital television.
So why is 4G better? Speed is the big difference; 4G download and upload speeds approach that of a cable modem and are considerably faster than 3G. Sprint says its 4G speeds are 10 times faster than 3G and that moving from 3G to 4G is equivalent to replacing a DSL modem with a broadband cable modem.
The new technology also improves latency -- the short waits for the network to "catch up" that cause stuttering in streaming video. So viewing live video on a 4G device should be close to seamless.
Because 4G speeds allow applications to work in real time, there will be lots of new services available.
Verizon suggests that 4G will allow what it calls the Connected Car -- streaming audio, video, Internet connectivity and traffic information in your car. The company envisions kiosks that will allow people to consult a doctor using videoconferencing from a rural area. Professors could conduct classes from the field. And in a less serious application, restaurants could have video jukeboxes that allow customers to play music videos.
And 4G further enables electronic devices to connect with each other.
Using 4G requires devices equipped to operate with it, although 4G devices will work on the current 3G networks.
Sprint already has two phones, the HTC Evo and the Samsung Epic, capable of receiving data at 4G speeds.
T-Mobile offers the myTouch phone. Verizon says its 4G phones will hit the market in the first half of next year; 4G USB modems will be available later this year from Verizon.
As for coverage, T-Mobile has service in more than 75 cities, Sprint says its coverage includes 40 million people, and Verizon is rolling the service out to 38 metropolitan areas and 60 airports by the end of the year.
So get ready for your cell phone or tablet to shift into high gear.