The 4G Marathon Continues, but the End is in Sight

Carl Weinschenk

There may be a lot of smiling faces next week in Chicago as the 4G World conference convenes in an atmosphere that favors the upgrading of cellular in general and the move to this newest platform-which comes in two flavors, WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE)-in particular.


The economy is improving, albeit slowly, data traffic is increasing, overdue maintenance will be done in the coming months, and the appetite for smartphones is insatiable. All of these stars are aligning as the long march of 4G from the lab to full commercialization traverses its final stages. All seems fine in the cellular world.


While 4G is the hottest topic of the day, it is important to remember that network upgrades don't happen in unison. The fact that the advanced networks are starting to move to 4G doesn't mean that there is no longer any action on the 3G front. There is. It's an interesting issue. AT&T has come under fire for the poor network quality with which it is supporting its exclusive agreement with Apple for the iPhone. While the general assumption is that the exclusivity is coming to an end and that the iPhone soon will be available on other networks, it doesn't stop current subscribers from feeling a bit victimized.


Perhaps AT&T hears them and wants to prevent a mass of subscribers heading for the exits once the iPhone is available elsewhere. NewsFactor reports that the carrier will deploy the new version 7.2 of the existing High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) platform in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Charlotte, N.C., by the end of the year. The company says that by the end of 2011 it will have HSPA 7.2 to 90 percent of its service area in an upgrade that is expected to cost $17 billion to $18 billion. The higher speed 3G technology is seen as a precursor to the company's 4G initiative. The story says that six HSPA 7.2 phones and two laptop cards will be introduced in connection with the upgrade.

One of the great wild cards in the 4G rollout will be how quickly cable operators get into the action through their stakes in Clearwire, which markets WiMax under the Clear label. On Sept. 10-perhaps in anticipation of the 4G conference set for the Windy City -- Time Warner Cable's chairman and CEO Glenn Britt told a Bank of America Merrill Lynch conference that the operator has rolled out the platform to friendly users in Dallas, one of the AT&T's HSPA 7.2 locales, and will follow suit soon in North and South Carolina. The report says that Britt "hinted" that the company would invest in Clearwire in order to keep its nationwide rollout on track.

The conference should be interesting. FierceWireless's Sue Marek has a good advance story. Her take is that the LTE versus WiMax debates that have dominated until now may be less of an issue. Instead, the key will be questions about what people want to use 4G for. Hopefully Marek is right. The industry is at a point where questions concerning applications are far more interesting than "less filling/tastes great" arguments over which of the two technically similar platforms will dominate.

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