Sonoma County is a rural county. We look at Santa Rosa and our chests swell at our bustling urban metropolis (population 167,000), but make no mistake: to cell phone carriers, we are small-fry. In 2012 that has a very precise and painful meaning for your mobile devices.

We are inundated with ads touting the wonders of 4G Internet connections. One of the important selling points of the new iPad is its 4G capability. The cell phone carriers are touting 4G phones and advertising the superiority of their 4G networks. It sounds exciting.

If you live in a rural area like Sonoma County, there is no 4G service and there is no accurate estimate of when any carrier will first deliver it.

That’s not supposed to dissuade you from buying 4G devices. There are good reasons to buy 4G devices. It’s coming and it will be the standard soon enough. There are two things to know about 4G devices:

  • If a device’s 4G capabilities are turned on before 4G service is available, it may shorten battery life because it’s hunting for the signal that isn’t there. Don’t obsess over that. Not every device will give you the option to turn off 4G. In the meantime, almost everything is backwards compatible with 3G.
  • After 4G service is available, it will be tempting to use 4G speed to watch streaming video or transfer large files. Be careful! The carriers hope you will go over the limit on your data plan so they can send you large bills for overages.

Let’s take a bird’s eye view. This is wildly simplified because the details make my brain hurt.

3G and 4G are standards for delivering Internet connections over cell phone networks.

3G service was introduced in the U.S. in 2002.The carriers spent the next few years building out their networks so that 3G Internet service is now available almost everywhere that a cell phone signal can be found. It has been 3G service that powered the explosion of smartphones in the last four years. Until this year, 3G service has been synonymous with “mobile broadband.”

There is no standard for the speed that you can expect from a 3G connection. Your download speed might be anywhere from 384K-2Mb, theoretically even more.

The carriers have found various ways to boost the speed of 3G connections using more or less the same equipment, resulting in an explosion of confusing acronyms that all amount to “improved 3G service.”

4G is the next generation of cellular mobile communications standards. It provides speeds that are roughly 5-10 times as fast as 3G, as well as greater coverage areas from each tower.

The term LTE also turns up frequently, sometimes redundantly linked to the term 4G, sometimes as an alternative way to claim higher speeds without invoking 4G.

All of the cell phone carriers are installing 4G equipment but it requires expensive new boxes in each tower and a lot of expensive work on back-end infrastructure. We are in a transition period in 2012 while the networks are built out with this new equipment. The carriers are focused with laser-like intensity on the big cities where subscribers are packed together and revenue is easy. Our shift to mobile devices and our thirst for bandwidth is ramping up so quickly that the carriers are having trouble building fast enough to satisfy demand just in urban areas.

They will get around to rural areas – eventually. It’s not their highest priority. Verizon says it has 4G service in 200 cities now and plans to add 200 more before the end of the year. Verizon employees in Santa Rosa stores look around as if they’re about to tell you a secret and then whisper behind their hand that they’ve been told 4G service will arrive in Sonoma County Real Soon Now. (Yeah, sure.)

It’s worth knowing that the term “4G” has no particular definition and acronyms are not consistent from one carrier to another. There is a defined standard for “4G” but it is also used as a marketing tool with no regard for that standard. There is no particular correlation between Verizon 4G LTE and AT&T 4G HSPA+ and Sprint 4G WiMax. You can’t tell from the names what speed to expect or which is fastest. The speeds will likely increase on the same carrier as it moves from one generation of service to another – Verizon 4G LTE is faster than Verizon 3G, for example. Beyond that you can’t draw any conclusions from the names or the claims in ads. The carriers are banking on consumer confusion – literally banking on it as we sign up for data plans beyond their wildest dreams.

The carriers are in the process of moving everyone to metered data plans. In the last few months they successfully neutered the last few grandfathered “unlimited data” plans by choking off the connections of anyone who tried to use the connection for unlimited data.

You will likely have no trouble with a metered data plan if you use your carrier’s broadband connection for Internet browsing, email, and some random apps.

If you watch video on your phone or tablet, you will quickly use up your monthly data allotment. You will be more tempted to do that with a 4G connection, which will not stutter and might even arrive in higher definition. Here are some useful numbers:

“What many consumers may not realize is the new iPad’s faster LTE connection means they will use more data even if they don’t change their 3G surfing habits. Take regular video: Verizon estimates that streaming it over an LTE connection runs through 650 megabytes an hour. That’s double the amount of data used streaming the same video over a 3G link, because the fatter pipe lets more data through.

“On top of that, the new iPad’s sharper screen will encourage some users to view videos in high-definition, which uses 2 gigabytes an hour on a 4G connection, according to Verizon.”

Be careful watching video over a 4G LTE connection!

And if you live in Sonoma County or another rural area that does not interest the carriers, hunker down for a long wait. The ads don’t apply to you.

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