They've barely begun tackling the much-vaunted 3G (third-generation) of wireless technology, but leading companies in the industry are already laying the groundwork for what some are calling 4G. Researchers want to contribute their ideas to the development of an as-yet undefined "wireless world" that could become operational by around 2010.
Four European mobile equipment makers, Alcatel SA, L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. Ltd., Nokia Corp., and Siemens AG, founding members of the new Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF), are jointly hosting its kick-off meeting here this week. The goal of the new body will be to "secure momentum, strategic orientation, and impact for the research on wireless communications beyond 3G," said Martin Haardt, director of international projects and university cooperation at Siemens' Mobile Infrastructure division.
Research strategists from each of the companies presented here their visions of that future world to a roomful of scientists and executives from across the industry and academia.
"I do not like this term 4G," said Walter Konhäuser, senior vice president and chief technical officer at Siemens Information and Communication Mobile Networks. The term, he said, could encourage users to wait before trying out 3G, in the belief that something more advanced is around the corner.
But the transition to 4G, he said, will not imply a change in interface technology, as with the planned transition in the next year in Europe from GSM (Global Standard for Mobile Telecommunications) to UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) wireless standards. Rather, 4G promises to integrate different modes of wireless communications -- from indoor networks such as wireless LANs and Bluetooth, to cellular signals, to radio and TV broadcasting, to satellite communications. The ideal, he said, is a seamless merger, so that users of mobile devices can roam freely from one standard to another.
"The computer world, the telecommunications world, and the audio and video world will merge," said Konhäuser. "We want to manage this in a way that our subscribers have fun, have an advantage, and are prepared to pay for it."
Tero Ojanperä, vice president for research, standardization and technology at Nokia's Mobility Networks division, cited an example of wireless standards integration that Nokia has developed: a wireless LAN card with an integrated SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card, which carries a user's personal information in mobile phones. The combination allows a user's identity to be authenticated when he or she accesses a LAN via a mobile phone network.
"Now you can really build a hotspot wireless communications network," he said. "This is available today." But he stressed that more sophisticated ways of merging the different standards will be needed in the future.
Ojanperä cautioned his colleagues not to think too far into the future: "We should actually innovate for the systems we have now, 3G and even 2G, in order to make these systems thrive and drive the traffic" that will call for 4G applications, he said.
Magnus Madfors, director for access networks in Ericsson's research division, offered some sample services that could be part of the wireless world that researchers are dreaming up. He demonstrated a sample location-based service that guides a pedestrian from one point to another via a computer-generated map on his mobile phone; a system enabling a user to make payment using various credit cards or bank drafts, again via a display on his mobile phone; and a service allowing a user to download video sequences showing the highlights of his home team's soccer games. Finally, Madfors showed an animated video in which a visitor to Stockholm's Old Town puts on a set of virtual reality glasses. A "virtual guide" appears in the lenses, giving a guided tour of the neighborhood.
"These are the applications we would very much like to offer to the end user in future," he said.
Alistair Urie, deputy director of standardization at Alcatel, said that now that the initial boom in wireless is over, operators "need help to survive, so that they can provide these new applications."
He said that what he called "Bellhead"-based mobile networks need an infusion of "Nethead" thinking.
"We've got to stop thinking about this network-centric, very defined world," he said, pointing out that IP (Internet protocol) systems are highly decentralized. Even 3G is a very traditional, network-centric concept, he said, one that "assumes the terminal is not much more intelligent than (an ordinary telephone). This is not how Netscape (Communications Corp.'s Internet browser) got on everyone's PC in '94 and '95."
Membership in WWRF is open to anyone who is interested, the founders stressed -- it is not restricted to European companies. Asked why only wireless hardware manufacturers are represented, and no network operators, one executive said that initially the organizers wanted to keep the forum manageable. "If we invited one operator, we'd have to invite them all," said Fiona Williams, research director at Ericsson Eurolab Deutschland GmbH. But she stressed that some operators had sent representatives to the kick-off meeting.
The WWRF meeting continues here through Wednesday. The Forum will continue its work at a meeting in Helsinki on May 10 and 11.
Alcatel, in Paris, can be contacted at +33-1-4076-1010, or on the Web at http://www.alcatel.com/. Ericsson, in Stockholm, can be reached at +46-8-719-0000, or http://www.ericsson.com/. Nokia in Espoo, Finland is at +358-9-5113-8193, or at http://www.nokia.com/. The WWRF can be reached via the World Wide Web at http://www.ist-wsi.org/.