What you need to know about 4G

Users can expect wireless services that support data-transmission speeds as high as, and in excess of 100Mbps

If you're wondering what fourth-generation wireless deployments and services mean to you, you're not alone.

There's plenty of talk about 4G, particularly since Sprint Nextel last year announced its US$3 billion plan to build a 4G, mobile WiMAX network in the US.

But it's not always clear what all the fuss is about. In a nutshell, users can expect wireless services that support data-transmission speeds as high as, and in excess of, 100Mbps, with the promise of QoS and even traffic prioritization, industry experts say. With such features, it becomes possible to imagine a mobile employee using a cell phone to participate in a video conference or tune into high-quality streaming video.

It won't come cheap for carriers, however. According to the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), carriers in the United States are expected to spend US$4.4 billion on WiMAX infrastructure equipment in 2008. Considering that WiMAX is only one potential 4G standard, industry watchers are expecting carriers to drop a lot of dough on 4G gear.

Still, true 4G services are a long way from delivery. Here are some things you should know about 4G as you look to distinguish the hype from the reality of this next-generation technology.

There is no single 4G standard

Unlike 3G, no specific standards spell out what a 4G service, network or technology is today. Analysts say these specifications are to come, but today "4G is more of a marketing idea," says Phil Redman, a research vice president at Gartner.

There is a mobile WiMAX standard -- the IEEE's 802.16e standard -- on which Sprint Nextel is basing its US$3 billion investment. But Redman says mobile WiMAX is not 4G, "although the WiMAX folks would love for that label to catch on."

Still, WiMAX and other technologies may be part of a forthcoming 4G specification. "There's no doubt that existing technologies like WiMax and other technologies such as [Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access] and [multiple input multiple output] will be included in 4G," Redman says. "But no one technology will be 4G."

Defining a standard won't be quick or easy

"These things tend to run in 10-year cycles," Redman says. "2G came out in 1995, 3G in 2004. There will not be a 4G standard before 2015."

In the meantime, a number of players have attempted to spell out what 4G should look like. The World Wireless Research Forum (WWRF) says 4G will run over an IP infrastructure, interoperate with Wi-Fi and WiMAX, and support fast speeds from 100Mbps to as high as 1Gbps.

It's also key that next-generation wireless includes QoS metrics and the ability to prioritize traffic, says Lisa Pierce, a vice president at consulting firm Forrester Research. "Lack of prioritization is preventing businesses from using current EV-DO services as their primary data connection."

WWRF expects 4G will be a collection of technologies and protocols, not just one single standard. That's similar to 3G, which today includes many technologies such as GSM and CDMA that meet specific criteria.

To help move the standards process along, WWRE -- whose members include Ericsson, Huawei Technologies and Motorola -- contributes to standards work done within groups such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the group that defined 3G wireless specifications, and the IETF.

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