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How (and When) Will 4G Networks Change Your Life?
By Tom Bullotta and Donita Prakash 

We have heard the hype for a while.  4G (or fourth generation networks) will deliver a comprehensive IP-based wireless broadband solution where voice, data and streamed multimedia are provided to users on an "Anytime, Anywhere" basis and at a much higher throughput than previously possible. Just what does it all mean and when will it make a real difference in the lives of business users? The following article attempts to distinguish the reality from the myth about 4G and inform those making plans within the enterprise for the future of 4G networks, enabled devices and potential killer applications.

What is 4G exactly?

To completely explain the evolutionary chain of wireless capabilities, we need to start with some definitions. The first generation of wireless was analog wireless networks delivering voice conversations. This was the prevalent technology of the 1980s when cell phone service first emerged. The second generation of service added digital capabilities. GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) based on time division multiple access (TDMA) is the worldwide dominant standard championed by most of the European carriers and AT&T (formerly Cingular) in the United States. CDMA (code division multiple access) is the predominant standard in the U.S. advocated by most of the major carriers including Verizon, Sprint and Alltel. Nextel was a lone wolf in adopting the iDEN standard TDMA that included 2-way radio capabilities. As time passed through acquisitions or product launches, some carriers have dabbled in supporting multiple standards. The competing standards have impacted interoperability, which has resulted in reduced roaming capabilities.

We are now in the age of third generation (3G) networks with over 200 million worldwide users leveraging 3G, which equates to approximately 7% of all mobile phone users, but the issue of competing standards has not disappeared. 3G networks allow the simultaneous communication of data and voice and most of the major U.S. carriers have some type of offering with the CDMA Evolution Data-Optimized (EV-DO) standard being supported by Sprint, Verizon and Alltel, and W-CDMA High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) being championed by AT&T. Current data speeds vary from 400-800 Kbps with peaks up to 3 Mbps and carriers plan to continue to upgrade throughput and coverage over the coming 3 to 5 years. The business user who wants to take advantage of these capabilities must upgrade the phone handset or wireless-enabled device (laptop card, etc.) and ensure coverage areas meet their needs.

What does 3G offer the business user?

  • Wireless broadband speeds to your mobile phone so that Internet surfing or email downloads are a reality.
  • Video streaming is possible but not quite as commercially reliable as when 4G-related technology becomes available.
  • Simultaneous activities become possible on the wireless phone -- GPS positioning and location-based services, data streaming and a voice conversation can all be going on at once over a 3G network and with appropriate equipment. 
  • Wireless cards provide the same enhanced 3G capabilities for laptops and other mobile-enabled devices such as videocameras, TVs, digital cameras and surveillance cameras.
Some interesting applications exist for mobile workers such as the following:
    • Emergency first responders can stream video to headquarters, computers or other cell phones while their phones broadcast their GPS location.
    • Video broadcasts to mobile phones become a commercial reality (higher reliability and bandwidths of 4G make it a reality for HDTV)
    • Fixed devices such as security cameras can broadcast video and audio to another location. 
    • Workers can send photos from a camera directly to a laser printer.
    • Mobile workers such as plumbers, electricians and sales people can connect to the Internet and enter or upload data while still talking on the phone.
    • Mobile devices for trains and airplanes can be designed to stream video on-demand.    
    • Mobile videoconferences among remote workers or sales teams.
    • All attendees of a major event (annual shareholder's meeting, concert, football game, political speech) become capable of capturing and streaming a video broadcast. As cheap digitized sound recording capabilities and iTunes reinvented the music industry, 3G network capabilities and YouTube may similarly reinvent video broadcasts for the masses. You will capable of producing your own TV broadcast.

    What are the limitations of 3G?

    • Geographic coverage: 3G networks are still not completely ubiquitous across the U.S. -- carriers are still rolling out some rural areas while other are just concentrating their 3G capabilities on more densely populated urban areas. 
    • Consistency of service: lapses of service or degradation in service levels are still quite common and do not get solved with current architecture due to lack of data prioritization. 4G networks promise more consistency via improved quality of service management.
    • Different evolutionary paths among carriers: Some carriers are just now rolling out 3G capability; others are continuing to enhance their 3G offerings, while others are already actively on the path to 4G. Enterprises that are reevaluating their mobile services should find out what their carrier plans to roll out in the future before investing in long-term contracts.
    • Adoption: Because users have to upgrade equipment and coverage and capabilities are not yet consistent, businesses have been slower to adopt 3G technology without a good business case.  Industry experts expect that it will be 3-5 years for most users to be converted to a 3G service. So if your business applications depend on a mass-market adoption of 3G services or national/global coverage, you may have to wait a while.

    4G and the Future

    Most of the future capabilities of wireless are inherent in 3G networks. 4G networks add speed (50 Mbps vs. 2-3 Mbps in 3G). However, another key advantage of a 4G network is enhanced reliability and more consistent service. The IP-based packet network approach of 4G provides error checking and automatic retransmissions.  However, the one issue still not solved with 4G is the issue of competing standards. If this issue remains unsolved, it will drive up the cost of equipment and the cost to convert from a carrier on one standard versus the other. The good news is that 4G is expected to drive down end user equipment costs. It is also important to point out that like previous wireless standards, 4G will actually be a set of technologies and not just a single standard. However, the hope for interoperability's sake is that the approved set of technologies is less diverse than the current 2G and 3G offerings.

    With higher speeds and increased reliability, all of the video broadcast applications (e.g. mobile TV) become much more commercially viable and lower cost as the content providers do not have to invest in expensive compression technology to deliver service.  Raw footage can be beamed back and forth more easily.  (At rates of 50 Mbps, the content of a DVD can be downloaded within about 10 minutes for offline access.) With this type of capability, many fixed devices may incorporate wireless technology and skip over the wired line architecture.  For example, your home TV may have a wireless card that allows you to stream or download movies from the Internet. As additional services grow, we are likely to see a new competitor to cable, DSL and fiber optic wired services. 4G can also provide broadband access to rural communities where facilities-based service delivery is difficult.

    But as stated above, 4G may not become a reality any time soon as carriers that have invested in 3G networks are still at the beginning of the user adoption cycle. WiMax is an exciting first step towards 4G, providing high bandwidth transmissions to a mobile device or fixed location. However, WiMax is currently only for data, so carriers adopting WiMax will have to bundle this offering with simultaneous voice transmission to deliver true 4G capabilities. A number of decisions about spectrum allocation, standardization and availability as well as technology innovations, component development, signal processing, switching enhancements and some settling of standards have to take place before the full vision of 4G will materialize. Real 4G rollouts are 3 to 5 years away.

    The following table shows the evolution of standards from 2G through pre-4G and highlights adoption trends.


    of Standards






    Pre-4G Strategy


    Pre-4G Adopters


    Expected U.S. Delivery







    UMB (Ultra Mobile Broadband)

    No major carriers yet.











    • EDGE Evolution



    UMTS (3GSM)



    • TD-CDMA
    • TD-SCDMA



    • HSDPA
    • HSUPA
    • HSPA+



    UMTS Revision 8

    • LTE
    • HSOPA (Super 3G)


    Verizon Wireless




    Verizon has committed to LTE but is still a few years off











    WiBro (Mobile WiMAX)


    GAN (UMA)








    Clearwire had 270,000 subscribers for its WiMax service as of June 2007.  (Recently broke their partnership with Sprint to build out national WiMax network.)


    Sprint is in trial and plans 2008 WiMax rollout to select cities













    [1] Source of CDMA Family information, Wikipedia article, 4G

    [2] Source of GSM Family information, Wikipedia article, 4G

    In the U.S., Sprint is leading the charge towards 4G by announcing that they will test their WiMax network this year and start rolling out early next year.  While WiMax alone is not true 4G, it has been sanctioned as a next generation technology by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union committee and is expected to be incorporated into the 4G standards set. Analysts expect that WiMax will have 8% adoption by the year 2012 and enterprises considering WiMax will want to ensure coverage areas meet their requirements. 

    Some of the standards already seem to be falling out of favor, which will narrow the field of choices both for the carrier as well as the buyers. Ultra Mobile Broadband (successor to CDMA) is another standard that may lose out as no large carrier has adopted it yet. Invented and manufactured by Qualcomm (which has also invested in technology supporting WiMax), this does not seem to be a contender.

    Long Term Evolution---LTE, successor to GSM---on the other hand has support from several European carriers and Verizon in the U.S. LTE is a few years behind WiMax but holds great long-term promise. Some carriers are not conducting 4G R&D yet. AT&T hasn't chosen a 4G play yet and T-Mobile is just planning to launch their 3G network this year in the U.S. 

    For enterprises considering investing in mobile technology that will last, the best advice right now is to wait and see. Competition among the carriers and the competing standards will eventually result in fewer standards rather than more, which results in safer investments and better interoperability. (We are currently in the Betamax vs. VHS period.) If these capabilities are critical to your mobile workers, then it's best to choose a carrier that is further along in the evolutionary chain. Consider 3G solutions such as EV-DO that are continuing to improve in speed and coverage and keep your eye on Sprint's WiMax gamble. But for those who can afford to wait, the best advice is to do so until the dust settles. A few more years may provide a clearer picture of who will be the winners and losers in the 4G game.

    Tom Bullotta is a director in the communication and media practice of Acumen Solutions, Inc., a business and technology consulting firm with offices across the U.S. and Europe. Tom can be reached at [email protected]  Donita Prakash is the chief marketing officer at Acumen Solutions.