4G is beckoning a bit beyond the horizon. The question, which is nicely posed at GigaOm by John Roese, Nortel's CTO, is what precisely 4G will be. The post doesn't dive into any specific technology. The issue boils down to a simple question:
Is 4G about improving the performance of today's mobile networks, or is it about revolutionizing the model to create a truly ultra-broadband mobile experience?
It is a very important question. It's also a bit difficult because the answer really deals with a short-term and long-term future. The immediate future of cellular will be the extension of 3G. Whether that world continues to evolve to the more expansive landscape for which Roese clearly hopes remains to be seen.
Roese says three things should characterize the network of the future. Two of these -- support for "unsubsidized end points" and the ability to support any application -- are about what Google asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to mandate in the 700 MHz spectrum auction that is slated for January. The third prerequisite is a focus on more users and devices instead of relying on dragging more money out of existing customers.
Those are good goals, if a bit general. A study released by In-Stat says that promulgation of 4G standards is a way off and that rollouts are not likely to begin until the 2010-2012 timeframe. However, three emerging candidates already are in play: Long Term Evolution (LTE), Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) and 802.16m (WiMax).
The competitive lines already are forming, and they are interesting. According to the story, Ericsson is in the LTE camp, Qualcomm is backing UMB, and WiMax is being pushed by Intel. There is general agreement that 4G will use Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) modulation and operate at 100 Mbps.
Though 2010 and 2012 sounds like a long way off, companies are staking out their claims on various pieces of the pie. WiChorus, for instance, this week introduced access gateway technology that will enable service providers to evaluate 4G traffic flows to better manage the network. The technology will work regardless of which platform predominates. The story suggests that the vendor will first offer the technology in conjunction with WiMax.
Another endeavor, announced last week, is from TerreStar Networks. ScreenPlays reports that next year the company will begin satellite distribution of IP-based voice, data and mission-critical information applications in North America. Once the data reaches earth, it can be distributed using Nokia Siemens Networks' Internet High Speed Packet Access (I-HSPA) platform. The system works with existing wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA) technology and can extent to LTE and other 4G platforms when they become available, the story says.
This Electronic Design feature is a good roundup of what is here, what is gradually coming online and what the future holds. Currently, 3G services are rolling out. The writer says they are being pushed by data services such as mobile e-mail and short message service (SMS). The story describes the next versions of various standards, which generally go beyond 3G but fall short of 4G. In his discussion of 4G, the author emphasizes that it will evolve over a long period of time.
The writer says 4G has not been clearly defined by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) groups. In addition to the definition provided by internetnews.com, this piece says 4G is expected to use the IPv6 addressing scheme. It could offer 1 Gbps in a fixed mode and uplink speeds in the 50 Mbps range.
The bottom line is that 4G is not as far in the future as it seems. Corporate planners will have to make hard decisions on how they approach this powerful platform -- and they need to begin thinking about it soon.