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

Availability could be years off

4G's predecessor, 3G wireless, is still taking off. The fourth-largest wireless-service provider, T-Mobile,launched its 3G network this year. So if 3G is just getting going, what does that mean for 4G?

Opinions on when 4G services might be available differ. The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) group says commercial services beyond 3G could launch as early as 2010. KPN Mobile, Orange, Sprint, T-Mobile International, Vodafone, China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo make up NGMN. The goal of the group, similar to the WWRF, is to work with standards bodies in developing next-generation specifications.

But if standards don't come before 2015, as Gartner's Redman predicts, true 4G services could come only after 2015.

4G labels don't mean true 4G

Sprint is rolling out mobile WiMAX as an overlay to its existing network that's based on Code Division Multiple Access and has gone through several upgrades already. Most recently, Sprint has been aggressively deploying EV-DO revision A upgrades, increasing upload speeds to between 350K and 500Kbps and download speeds to between 600K and 1.4Mbps.

Verizon Wireless also is rolling out EV-DO Revision A.

But Gartner's Redman takes issue with calling any one technology available today 4G. "Sprint said internally it calls WiMAX 4G because it's the fourth generation of Sprint's wireless network. [Sprint] is not proposing WiMAX as a 4G standard."

Sprint's move is a gamble. It will either come out of this a forward-thinking innovator or as a company that took a chance on the wrong technology. AT&T and others also are testing WiMAX.

Clearwire offers WiMax, but it's not 4G

Clearwire Communications is a start-up with the power of wireless pioneer Craig McCaw behind it. It's the first mobile WiMAX provider with services. The carrier offers high-speed (as high as 1.5Mbps) wireless Internet access service in 13 states. But, as Gartner's Redman points out, the service is data-only today. "4G has to be both voice and data," he says.

So while Clearwire's service is using one of the technologies that might fit under the 4G banner, it's generally not considered 4G, nor does the company use that term in describing its service.

4G will open the door to a variety of mobile apps

Some analysts agree there is no "killer app" for 4G today. But with the mobile speeds being proposed with 4G, customers could participate in live video conferences while on the go or access bandwidth-intensive applications.

Forrester's Pierce says the real jewel of 4G will be its ability to prioritize business traffic and offer customers classes of service that they have come to expect from other business-grade IP services.

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