Could 4G replace your cable modem for home broadband?

Here's one of the biggest dilemmas faced by cord cutters: If you ditch your cable subscription, where will you get your speedy broadband?

Well, you could always lose your cable box and keep the modem — but you'd still be dealing with your cable provider. Or you could go the DSL way, but kiss those 10Mbps-and-up download speeds goodbye (unless you're ready to spend big bucks for an enterprise-level DSL account, that is).

Nowadays, though, there's another option: 4G — or at least, the next-generation data networks that the big U.S. wireless carriers have labeled as "4G." (What actually constitutes a 4G network is, of course, a matter of debate.)

Sprint's 4G WiMax network has been around for a couple of years now, with about 60 major cities bathed in WiMax coverage; T-Mobile, meanwhile, has more than 100 markets covered by its so-called "4G" HSPA+ network, and Verizon Wireless just launched its 4G LTE (short for "Long Term Evolution") network in close to 40 cities. AT&T's LTE network is set to go live next year, although it already offers HSPA+ service for about 80 percent of its coverage area.

Today's 4G networks aren't quite as speedy as the fastest wired broadband offerings — think anywhere from 2 to 21Mbps downstream, compared with 100Mbps and up for the various (and pricey) "extreme" plans offered by the biggest U.S. cable carriers. (For the record, the FCC defines anything faster than 4Mbps downstream as "broadband.")

And it's not just a question of speed; latency, or lag, is also an issue, with even the best 4G connection tending to be a little laggier than wired home broadband.

But we're just barely two years into the 4G wireless era here in the U.S. — in other words, this is only the beginning. Five years down the road, the big wireless carriers will probably offer coast-to-coast 4G coverage, with transfer speeds and latency rates that compete quite nicely with cable broadband.

That could be enticing for users looking to cut the cord once and for all — and since 4G is offered by wireless carriers, you'd be able to pick and choose rather than settle for the cable operator who happens to have franchise rights to your neighborhood.

Of course, there's another issue to consider: bandwidth caps, with Verizon capping its 4G LTE plans at 5GB a month (for $50) and 10GB (for $80 a month), while T-Mobile throttles HSPA+ download speeds for users who bust over 5GB of data a month.

Sprint, however, offers unlimited 4G WiMax access for $60 a month — and for now, at least, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse swears that isn't going to change. (Isn't $60 a month more than most of us pay for faster cable broadband service? For now, sure — but perhaps once 4G broadband becomes a serious threat to cable broadband, the competition will lead to lower overall prices.)

That's why I've decided to try a little home 4G experiment with Sprint. I just bought Sprint's portable Overdrive 4G hotspot (replacing my old 3G MiFi for Sprint) and for the next few days I plan on trying to use it as my primary home connection. (Sorry, Road Runner.)

I've already had a preview of what download speeds to expect courtesy of the PR reps at Clearwire, who lent me one of their WiMax USB modems for testing purposes. The results (here in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn): a consistent 3-4Mbps downstream, 1.5 to 3Mbps upstream (much better than my Road Runner connection, which caps upload speeds at 500Kbps), with latency rates of about 50-70 milliseconds — not bad for a wireless data connection. (Latency rates for my cable modem hover around 20 ms.)

Using the limited range and power of the portable Overdrive router isn't ideal for testing at home, of course; ultimately, I'd like to do a little testing with one of Clear's new desktop 4G wireless modems, which the New York Times recently tried.

Will the Sprint Overdrive be able to handle 1080p video streaming on Netflix, or fast-twitch gaming over Xbox Live? Probably not as nimbly as my Road Runner cable connection does, but I'm curious to see how close it comes.

I'm sure I'll go back (reluctantly) to Road Runner once I wrap up my at-home 4G experiment, but the point of my test isn't so much to scrutinize today's 4G performance as to get a taste of the future: wireless 4G broadband, no cable (or cable carrier) required.

I'll keep you posted.

What about you: Would you consider ditching your cable modem for 4G, now or later?[source]


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