NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Just like when cell providers such as Verizon (VZ) - Get Report, AT&T (T) - Get Report, Sprint (S) - Get Report and T-Mobile went from 2G to 3G networks a decade ago, today the cell phone industry is locked in a battle over who has the fastest, most powerful 4G -- or fourth-generation -- cellular network.
"The big difference to consumers this time is the benefit of 4G will be self-evident," says Mark McDiarmid, vice president of radio engineering for T-Mobile. "The speed and performance gain is impressive."
And for businesses, anyway, the battle for the best 4G is important. When it works, 4G-enabled smartphones, laptops or other mobile devices can work as fast on the road as they do in the office.
I have spent the past few weeks testing T-Mobile's riff on 4G. In particular, I took one of the company's webConnect Rocket 2.0 4G laptop stick USB modems (free with a two-year contract, with data access costing about $40 per month) on a near continuous road test over a 732-mile loop from the New York City area up through Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and into Maine and back.
My verdict? When you're in the right places, T-Mobile's 4G network works quite well. In the wrong ones -- which I found to be surprisingly common for a company that claims the deepest 4G penetration in the U.S., with more than 200 million Americans served -- it can be clunky and frustrating.
What you get
Without question T-Mobile offers a legitimate value play for reasonably priced, fast Web access domestically and overseas.
T-Mobile's 4G network, which uses a technology known as HSPA+, really will make your cell phones, computers and other work tools surf faster online. Like most USB modems, the Rocket 2.0 4G couldn't be easier to install: Just plug it into your USB port, launch some software, click around for a bit, and you're working on the Web. Poof!
And in markets that support T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G network, control and performance were significantly faster than 3G cell networks. In particular, I found a performance gain while driving at highway speeds cruising down the Interstate -- which, trust me, opened up a world of attention "challenges" while behind the wheel. And because the T-Mobile's network is compatible with fast cellular networks worldwide, if you regularly travel overseas you will have a better chance of keeping in touch with home and office.
Overall, T-Mobile's 4G network -- when there is coverage -- offers good performance at a good price.
What you don't get
This is neither a fully deployed network nor an idiot-proof way to get connected on the road.
Yes, T-Mobile offers businesses a legit, well-priced mobile data business solution. But the company has always been challenged with a perception of spotty coverage, and it's a perception unquestionably confirmed in my testing. In my drive to Maine and back, I would say that
HSPA+ coverage was available in 30% of the area, mostly near New York, Hartford and Boston. The rest was a mix of 3G access and a surprising amount of older -- and far slower -- so-called EDGE access. And there far too many spots with no coverage at all. To the webConnect modem's credit, it did a reasonable job of managing the handoffs between these coverage areas at highway speeds. But the fact was that connections were dropped every 30 or 40 minutes as I drove, which took some serious tinkering to fix.
My gut reaction? If this is the deepest penetration of 4G in America, we all have a long road ahead.
As much as I'd like it to be, 4G -- and this is not just for T-Mobile, but for any carrier -- will be no magic bullet for solving your business-networking problems. Yes, it is faster than 3G and, when working, can transform your car or train or park bench into a robust mobile office.
But deployments will take time, so coverage will be limited. Which leaves us all in the same old position: If you want to use 4G in your business, you simply must go through the hassle of testing it in your business. That means buying it, using it for a few weeks and, if it works, keeping it; if not, returning it within the trial period and trying the next carrier.
As I said, using 4G on the road has a long road ahead.
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.