How (and When) Will 4G Networks Change Your Life?
For more on 4G check out the following headlines:
4G: What Does Your Enterprise Need To Know?
3G-4G To Account for 30% of Global Wireless Subscriptions By 2013
WiMAX Hype Vs. Reality
Preparing For 4G
Bullotta and Donita Prakash
heard the hype for a while. 4G (or
fourth generation networks) will deliver a comprehensive IP-based wireless
broadband solution where voice, data and streamed multimedia are provided to
users on an "Anytime, Anywhere" basis and at a much higher throughput
than previously possible. Just what does it all mean and when will it make a
real difference in the lives of business users? The following article attempts to
distinguish the reality from the myth about 4G and inform those making plans
within the enterprise for the future of 4G networks, enabled devices and
potential killer applications.
What is 4G exactly?
completely explain the evolutionary chain of wireless capabilities, we need to start
with some definitions. The first generation of wireless was analog wireless networks
delivering voice conversations. This was the prevalent technology of the 1980s
when cell phone service first emerged. The second generation of service added
digital capabilities. GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) based on
time division multiple access (TDMA) is the worldwide dominant standard championed
by most of the European carriers and AT&T (formerly Cingular) in the United States.
CDMA (code division multiple access) is the predominant standard in the U.S. advocated
by most of the major carriers including Verizon, Sprint and Alltel. Nextel was
a lone wolf in adopting the iDEN standard TDMA that included 2-way radio capabilities.
As time passed through acquisitions or product launches, some carriers have dabbled
in supporting multiple standards. The competing standards have impacted
interoperability, which has resulted in reduced roaming capabilities.
We are now
in the age of third generation (3G) networks with over 200 million worldwide
users leveraging 3G, which equates to approximately 7% of all mobile phone
users, but the issue of competing standards has not disappeared. 3G networks
allow the simultaneous communication of data and voice and most of the major
U.S. carriers have some type of offering with the CDMA Evolution Data-Optimized
(EV-DO) standard being supported by Sprint, Verizon and Alltel, and W-CDMA High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) being championed by AT&T.
Current data speeds vary from 400-800 Kbps with peaks up to 3 Mbps and carriers
plan to continue to upgrade throughput and coverage over the coming 3 to 5
years. The business user who wants to take advantage of these capabilities must
upgrade the phone handset or wireless-enabled device (laptop card, etc.) and
ensure coverage areas meet their needs.
What does 3G offer the business
interesting applications exist for mobile workers such as the following:
broadband speeds to your mobile phone so that Internet surfing or email
downloads are a reality.
streaming is possible but not quite as commercially reliable as when 4G-related
technology becomes available.
activities become possible on the wireless phone -- GPS
positioning and location-based services, data streaming and a voice conversation
can all be going on at once over a 3G network and with appropriate
cards provide the same enhanced 3G capabilities for laptops and other mobile-enabled
devices such as videocameras, TVs, digital cameras and surveillance cameras.
first responders can stream video to
headquarters, computers or other cell phones while their phones broadcast their
broadcasts to mobile phones become a commercial reality (higher reliability and
bandwidths of 4G make it a reality for HDTV)
devices such as security cameras can broadcast video and audio to another
can send photos from a camera directly to a laser printer.
workers such as plumbers, electricians and sales people can connect to the Internet
and enter or upload data while still talking on the phone.
devices for trains and airplanes can be designed to stream video
videoconferences among remote workers or sales teams.
attendees of a major event (annual shareholder's meeting, concert, football
game, political speech) become capable of capturing and streaming a video
broadcast. As cheap digitized sound recording capabilities and iTunes
reinvented the music industry, 3G network capabilities and YouTube may similarly
reinvent video broadcasts for the masses. You will capable of producing your
own TV broadcast.
What are the limitations of 3G?
coverage: 3G networks are still not completely ubiquitous across the U.S. -- carriers
are still rolling out some rural areas while other are just concentrating their
3G capabilities on more densely populated urban areas.
of service: lapses of service or degradation in service levels are still quite
common and do not get solved with current architecture due to lack of data
prioritization. 4G networks promise more consistency via improved quality of
evolutionary paths among carriers: Some carriers are just now rolling out 3G
capability; others are continuing to enhance their 3G offerings, while others
are already actively on the path to 4G. Enterprises that are reevaluating their
mobile services should find out what their carrier plans to roll out in the future
before investing in long-term contracts.
Because users have to upgrade equipment and coverage and capabilities are not
yet consistent, businesses have been slower to adopt 3G technology without a
good business case. Industry experts
expect that it will be 3-5 years for most users to be converted to a 3G
service. So if your business applications depend on a mass-market adoption of
3G services or national/global coverage, you may have to wait a while.
4G and the Future
Most of the
future capabilities of wireless are inherent in 3G networks. 4G networks add
speed (50 Mbps vs. 2-3 Mbps in 3G). However, another key advantage of a 4G
network is enhanced reliability and more consistent service. The IP-based packet
network approach of 4G provides error checking and automatic retransmissions. However, the one issue still not solved with
4G is the issue of competing standards. If this issue remains unsolved, it will
drive up the cost of equipment and the cost to convert from a carrier on one
standard versus the other. The good news is that 4G is expected to drive down
end user equipment costs. It is also important to point out that like previous
wireless standards, 4G will actually be a set of technologies and not just a
single standard. However, the hope for interoperability's sake is that the
approved set of technologies is less diverse than the current 2G and 3G
speeds and increased reliability, all of the video broadcast applications (e.g.
mobile TV) become much more commercially viable and lower cost as the content
providers do not have to invest in expensive compression technology to deliver
service. Raw footage can be beamed back
and forth more easily. (At rates of 50 Mbps,
the content of a DVD can be
downloaded within about 10 minutes for offline access.) With this type of
capability, many fixed devices may incorporate wireless technology and skip
over the wired line architecture. For
example, your home TV may have a wireless card that allows you to stream or
download movies from the Internet. As additional services grow, we are likely
to see a new competitor to cable, DSL and fiber optic wired services. 4G can
also provide broadband access to rural communities where facilities-based
service delivery is difficult.
stated above, 4G may not become a reality any time soon as carriers that have
invested in 3G networks are still at the beginning of the user adoption cycle.
WiMax is an exciting first step towards 4G, providing high bandwidth
transmissions to a mobile device or fixed location. However, WiMax is currently
only for data, so carriers adopting WiMax will have to bundle this offering
with simultaneous voice transmission to deliver true 4G capabilities. A number
of decisions about spectrum allocation, standardization and availability as
well as technology innovations, component development, signal processing,
switching enhancements and some settling of standards have to take place before
the full vision of 4G will materialize. Real 4G rollouts are 3 to 5 years away.
following table shows the evolution of standards from 2G through pre-4G and
highlights adoption trends.
Expected U.S. Delivery
No major carriers yet.
UMTS Revision 8
has committed to LTE but is still a few years off
had 270,000 subscribers for its WiMax service as of June 2007. (Recently broke their partnership with
Sprint to build out national WiMax network.)
in trial and plans 2008 WiMax rollout to select cities
In the U.S.,
Sprint is leading the charge towards 4G by announcing that they will test their
WiMax network this year and start rolling out early next year. While WiMax alone is not true 4G, it has been
sanctioned as a next generation technology by the United Nations' International
Telecommunication Union committee and is expected to be incorporated into the
4G standards set. Analysts expect that
WiMax will have 8% adoption by the year 2012 and enterprises considering WiMax
will want to ensure coverage areas meet their requirements.
Some of the
standards already seem to be falling out of favor, which will narrow the field
of choices both for the carrier as well as the buyers. Ultra Mobile Broadband
(successor to CDMA) is another standard that may lose out as no large
carrier has adopted it yet. Invented and manufactured by Qualcomm (which
has also invested in technology supporting WiMax), this does not seem to be a
Evolution---LTE, successor to GSM---on the other hand has support from several
European carriers and Verizon in the U.S. LTE is a few years behind WiMax but
holds great long-term promise. Some carriers are not conducting 4G R&D yet.
AT&T hasn't chosen a 4G play yet and T-Mobile is just planning to launch their
3G network this year in the U.S.
considering investing in mobile technology that will last, the best advice
right now is to wait and see. Competition among the carriers and the competing
standards will eventually result in fewer standards rather than more, which
results in safer investments and better interoperability. (We are currently in
the Betamax vs. VHS period.) If these capabilities are critical to your mobile
workers, then it's best to choose a carrier that is further along in the
evolutionary chain. Consider 3G solutions such as EV-DO that are continuing to
improve in speed and coverage and keep your eye on Sprint's WiMax gamble. But
for those who can afford to wait, the best advice is to do so until the dust
settles. A few more years may provide a clearer picture of who will be the
winners and losers in the 4G game.
Tom Bullotta is a director in the communication
and media practice of Acumen Solutions, Inc., a business and technology
consulting firm with offices across the U.S.
and Europe. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donita Prakash is the chief marketing officer
at Acumen Solutions.