U.S. 4G battle is joined

The battle of the wireless coverage maps is about to go up a notch. Verizon Sunday night switched on its long term evolution (LTE) wireless 4G service. The company is promising 7 megabits to 12 megabits per second downlinks and 3 megabits to 5 megabits uploads — that is, up to 10 times faster than its 3G network. Those are roughly the speeds promised by Sprint, which until now has had the 4G broadband wirelesss market to itself in the U.S. Verizon’s service will be available in 38 cities and 60 airports initially, including the Washington D.C. area and its three major airports.

Bernie McGonagle, Verizon Wireless’s associate director of federal government data solutions, said the service should be available on the GSA Networx contract and other vehicles shortly, but that it had to be up and running before the company could add 4G to existing purchasing vehicles.

The service is available via two USB modems. McGonagle said Verizon will offer 4G smart phones by mid-2011.

For the technically-minded, the services uses frequency division multiplexing, a way of using bandwidth efficiently that’s analogous to wave division multiplexing in optical networks. McGonagle said use of multiple input-multiple output antennas both at the tower and device ends helps maintain signal continuity at long distances from the nearest tower and faster throughput at closer distances. Verizon’s implementation will use a 2 x 2 antenna setup initially. He added that lower latency in 4G transmissions will noticeably improve the display of video and audio content on portable devices.

McGonagle said Verizon is also adding megabit Ethernet to its towers so the terrestrial backbone itself will be less of a bottleneck. Plus, a set of services called IP multimedia subsystem is maintains sessions as locations and transport protocols change.

Verizon’s 4G service will also use the 700 MHz spectrum formerly used for television broadcasting. The company obtained the spectrum, known as Upper C Block,  in an FCC auction in 2008. Google had entered the fray, using its clout to have open access rules attached to the sale, but it is unclear at this point how that will translate into services to users.

For now, both modems available from Verizon — one a Pantech and one an LG — receive both 4G and 3G network data. They will be priced at $99 retail. Plans are not cheap, at $50 per month for a 5 gigabyte limit and $80 for 10 gigabytes, and $10 per gigabyte it you exceed your plan.

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