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HTC Thunderbolt will make use of Verizon's 4G network Thursday

by Phil Hornshaw

Verizon (VZ) announced this week that HTC’s (2498.TW) upcoming Thunderbolt smart phone, which is capable of using Verizon’s growing 4G LTE network, will be hitting store shelves starting March 17. In other words, it’ll be just two days before the company rolls out the first phone on its reportedly superfast data network.

We’ve been hearing about the benefits of Verizon’s LTE network for a while, but back at CES 2011 earlier this year in Las Vegas, we saw that a lot of other companies are seemingly getting on board. These include device makers like HTC and LG, as well as software creators, as well. Electronic Arts (ERTS), the publisher of games in the Rock Band franchise, demonstrated the capabilities of gaming over LTE during the conference (using the Thunderbolt, in fact), and Verizon had tablets playing games alongside players on PCs and PlayStation 3s using the network. It really does seem quite powerful, and Verizon pegs it as being 10 to 20 times faster than current standard 3G service.

Most of the big mobile carriers are touting some kind of 4G network growth right now, in fact, although Verizon’s is, by most non-carrier accounts, the best. Verizon is extending the coverage quickly and hopes to have 176 markets included in the service by the end of the year. Meanwhile, AT&T (T) is pushing two 4G-labeled devices, and T-Mobile (DTEGY.PK) has 4G of its own. But before you go running out to take advantage of a new Android device’s amazing 4G data capabilities, you might want to do a little research -- all 4G is not created equal.

A story from PC World has some really interesting things to say about how each carrier handles 4G -- some of them, in a word, don’t. For example, AT&T’s “4G” network has actually been shown by PC World to be slower than its 3G coverage. The advertising campaigns it’s pushing for 4G are basically false, but the company can get away with it because the definition of what constitutes 4G is pretty lax. Just because a carrier claims to be selling you 4G (and that’s not just limited to AT&T) doesn’t mean what you’re getting is an improvement.

According to PC World, cellular companies put some pressure on the International Telecommunications Union, which eventually changed its definition of 4G from several specific, high-powered technologies that the carriers didn’t actually have yet, to just about anything that’s considered faster than 3G. That makes the actual qualifications for 4G a little hazy, and subject to device and location.

For example, AT&T’s 4G might not run as well as its 3G, but it’s not necessarily a function of the technology -- it could be the coverage, or the network being overtaxed, or a result of several other factors. MetroPCS (PCS) has a 4G phone, the Samsung (005930.KS) Craft, that’s reportedly slower than its 3G counterparts, but the issue is the device’s processor rather than its data connection. T-Mobile’s two 4G phones use technology the company has actually said is not 4G.

The differences between 3G and 4G definitely exist, but it isn’t necessarily the smart phone super-technology tech companies sometimes make it out to be. That’s not to say that it isn’t a step forward in many cases, but the creation of the networks is taking time. Even AT&T’s service, which is lagging now, is being worked on and improved alongside its somewhat notorious 3G network.

But the fact of the matter right now is that “4G,” whatever that might entail, isn’t definite. As new devices hit shelves, it’s a worthwhile endeavor for Android customers to do their homework and vet new smart phones to find the ones that really are as powerful and speedy as carriers claim them to be.