Scads of acronyms and technologies cloud the crystal ball used to predict the future of wireless broadband. But look closer, and two things become abundantly clear.
First, we're headed toward fast, ubiquitous access that will lead to a new mix of business and personal applications. Experts agree that before long, anything you can do at your desktop, you'll be able to do on the road with a laptop or other mobile device.
"The mobile application of the future is the Internet," says Mike Roberts, an analyst at research firm Informa Telecoms & Media in London. "Once you get to the kinds of speeds we'll be seeing, the application is whatever is successful over the Internet."
And second, that future starts now, say most experts. Later this year, we'll start seeing mobile speeds several times faster than third-generation (3G) cellular data speeds in the U.S. and Korea and, very possibly, other locales. From there, speeds will ramp up quickly -- as will the number of places where these speeds are available. It shouldn't be more than a few years before you'll have access to ultrafast wireless broadband speeds, whether you're in Beijing or Boston.
Future generations of mobile broadband are likely to be based on a technology called OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing access). This is a more efficient radio modulation method than OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), which is already being deployed in increasingly common fixed WiMax networks.
At present, the most visible type of OFDMA network is mobile WiMax. A small network using this advanced technology is being rolled out in Korea (it's actually a close variant of mobile WiMax called WiBro). However, the biggest mobile WiMax build-out on the horizon is Sprint Nextel Corp.'s network in the U.S., which will initially be available late this year, the company says. Sprint says its network will offer typical download speeds ranging from 2Mbit/sec. to 4Mbit/sec. and will cost users less than its cellular Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) network.
If you live in or visit Seoul, Chicago or Washington, the future of mobile wireless has already started -- and you'll be able to use WiMax this year. Sprint promises that its network will be available to 100 million users in the U.S. by the end of 2008.
Beyond mobile WiMax, however, the migration from 3G to more sophisticated networks becomes complex. The migration path varies widely depending on the carrier, the country and a host of other considerations, such as the availability of radio spectrum. But experts agree that all paths lead to OFDMA. Here's how we'll get there.