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Taking 4G to the track

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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At last, 4G cellular service is for real.

Sure, the first of these high-speed wireless data systems came to Boston in September, courtesy of Sprint Nextel Corp. and its subsidiary, Clearwire Corp. About the same time, T-Mobile USA revealed a speed bump in its own wireless data network for Boston.

But everything changed when Verizon Wireless launched its 4G offering on Sunday. That’s partly because Verizon is the nation’s biggest cellular carrier. But it’s mainly because the new Verizon service is so good.

Verizon’s network frequently delivers the kind of file download speed you would expect from a good cable television Internet connection. Its data upload speed is just as remarkable. The biggest drawback is a pricing plan that charges by the gigabyte, rather than using a set monthly fee that allows for unlimited use. Otherwise, many users might unplug their cable modems and go all wireless Internet all the time.

To test the three 4G services, I lugged a laptop and a set of cellular modems to various locations in Quincy, Boston, Cambridge, Newton, and Waltham. Then I ran a standard speed test provided by Ookla, the same testing company used by the Federal Communications Commission. Wherever I went, Verizon Wireless smoked its 4G rivals.

Perhaps it’s the company’s technology that makes such a big difference. Each provider has a different method to deliver the goods. T-Mobile uses a system that increases the speed of its existing 3G network. Sprint partnered with Clearwire, which built a network using a relatively old technology called WiMax. Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless adopted a new system called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, which is expected to become the global standard for future 4G networks.

The T-Mobile 4G service is the slowpoke of the lot. I tested it using a webConnect Rocket from LG of South Korea, a 4G modem that plugs into a laptop’s USB slot. The device is available for free with a subscription to the T-Mobile 4G service.

Some reviewers in other towns claim very fast T-Mobile downloads — 9 million bits per second or more. No such luck for me. The webConnect device rarely broke two megabits. A typical 3G connection should give you about a megabit per second, but the T-Mobile system usually couldn’t even manage that. Perhaps T-Mobile’s Boston network needs an overhaul.

The Sprint-Clearwire 4G offering did a lot better. I fired up a Clear Spot 4G+ mobile hotspot, a little gadget that lets up to five laptops share a single 4G connection. It costs $225 to buy or $9 a month to lease.

In my tests, the service delivered what it promised — wireless data downloads ranging from three to six megabits per second, with peaks as high as eight megabits. For large file downloads, the speed drops off significantly, to around two megabits. It was fast enough to let me download a 45-minute-long Science Channel documentary in about an hour.

But the service isn’t as broadly available throughout the region as I’d expected. For example, I couldn’t pull in a Sprint 4G signal in Waltham or Newton — the only dead spots I encountered during my trials.

Both T-Mobile and Sprint launched their 4G service more than two months ago, giving them time to tweak and tune their networks. But neither measures up to the service that Verizon Wireless launched just four days ago.

I relied on a Verizon LTE modem from LG, priced at $99 with a two-year service contract. Wherever I tried it, the story was the same. Even in areas with a relatively weak signal, the Verizon Wireless network rarely delivered less than five megabits, and usually hit eight or nine. That means that same Science Channel show needed just 15 minutes to download.

All consumer broadband services offer slower upload speeds, on the theory that most users want to receive large files, but not transmit them. But the Verizon system consistently delivered excellent upload speeds of four to five megabits. That’s fast enough to stream two-way high-definition video in real time.

The only problem is price — $50 a month for five gigabytes of data sent or received, or $80 for 10 gigabytes. That is plenty for most users, but with so much speed, you’ll be tempted to use the Verizon service practically nonstop. Sprint-Clearwire offers unlimited data plans for as little as $45 a month.

But Verizon Wireless 4G is much faster than Sprint’s. Fast enough to supplant today’s wire-based Internet services, just as Verizon’s cellphones have replaced millions of wired telephones.

There’s no telling whether Verizon’s network will run this fast once it gets lots of users, or if it allowed unlimited downloads. I hope we get to find out, and soon. But for now . . . wow.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.