4G Networks: Smooth Sailing or Rough Waters Ahead?

4g sailboat

 Everyone continues to be excited about the advances in mobile computing technology, and 4G is no exception.  Who wouldn’t want blazing wireless speeds that rival old-fashioned wired connections?

Current Confusion

Unfortunately, there is a bit of confusion around what 4G really is.  As I wrote in my previous blog entry, The Technology Gods Have Spoken: No 4G (Yet), the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) proclaimed in October, 2010 that only two technologies to be classified as 4G.  These were versions of WiMAX and LTE.   However, in December 2010, the ITU broadened their 4G definition to include ‘other evolved 3G technologies’ which allowed cellular networks such as HSPA+ to be considered 4G.  Much of this was undoubtedly due to mobile operators already advertising their networks as 4G prior to the ITU proclamation.  This mixed message could leave users in a state of confusion.

As further proof, a July 2011 Retrevo survey indicated that 34% of iPhone 4 owners think that they already have 4G service, probably because of the ‘4’ in the name.  Similar perspectives exist with BlackBerry and Android owners as well.  In addition, the survey results indicated that consumers don’t think 4G benefits are worth the cost.  The US government has even introduced legislation to direct mobile operators to more clearly denote their capabilities and charges.

Future Fragmentation?

For a while, it was WiMAX versus LTE for the 4G title.  Although WiMAX was the first out of the gate, most don’t think it will be pervasive as LTE.  Even Sprint, the largest US mobile operator to deploy WiMAX, has an agreement with LightSquared to host their future LTE network (I’ll forgo any discussion on the GPS dilemma).  Also, Clearwire, the wholesale  WiMAX provider to Sprint,  has announced its support of LTE as part of its 4G network.  With GSM ruling 80% of the world and LTE being a more natural upgrade path, it appears that LTE will be the dominant 4G  technology.

That doesn’t mean that LTE won’t hit rough waters.  One of the major challenges is the fragmented LTE spectrum as pointed out in a July 2011 report from Informa.  Mobile operators in various regions are adopting different frequencies for LTE use.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it were only a handful, but there are at least 20 frequency bands under consideration.  Asia alone has as many as 11.   It’s not only an issue within regions, but within the same country as well.  In the US, the 4G frequency spectrum used by Verizon Wireless (746-787MHz) has almost no overlap with those planned for AT&T (704-746MHz).  MetroPCS is also deploying LTE, but in the 1700 MHz frequency band.

What does this mean?  Chipset manufacturers and handset OEMs will be hard-pressed to build ‘global’ LTE products.  Yes, we have quad-band and penta-band mobile phones, but they also have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios as well.  That’s a lot to support while maintaining size, speed, and battery life.  Supporting 20 bands with an icosa-band (had to look that one up) mobile device is not feasible at this time.  A number of carriers haven’t finalized their supported frequencies, making planning even more difficult.  OEMs will be challenged to figure out which frequencies to provide in a single device or how many flavors of a product will be needed for their various target markets.  In addition, mobile devices may run into roaming difficulties if the device doesn’t support the other carrier’s frequency band and may have to drop down to 3G speeds (gasp!).

Something tells me that by the time this 4G turbulence is figured out, 5G will be on the horizon and we’ll start this all over again.  Better batten down the hatches.

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