4G Status Report: Is 4G really necessary?

Here's a provocative thought: Is 4G really necessary? After all, the advancements in 3G mobile services along with new compression algorithms and networking schemes are doing a pretty good job of delivering mobile broadband to a new generation of devices. Why mess with success?

"Third generation technologies such as HSPA and even HSPA+ will absolutely provide a great experience for subscribers as well as a robust platform of efficient networks for the operators," said Chris Pearson, president of 3G Americas and a member of a panel designed to answer the questions about the necessity for 4G.

Pearson could and would be dismissed as biased--after all, look at his title--but he's not glued to 3G and is more than willing to accept 4G in its time.  "It's needed to continue to improve as the demand for wireless data continues to go up and up. 3G and its evolutions (are) going to be the leader for some time," he said.

Wireless data will drive 4G markets as it drives operators crazy trying to manage it. "To be able to handle traffic in the future that's where you need 4G," said Miguel Myhrer, senior executive of North America Wireless Network Practice at Accenture Communications High Technology group. "4G is for mobile broadband access. As more laptops are embedded with chips and more dongles are sold you will see a need for capacity."

While agreeing that 4G, and in particular LTE is necessary and will be data-driven, Perry LaForge, executive director of the CDMA Development Council takes a surprisingly conciliatory approach to the space. "4G in its generic form is good; competition is a good thing," LaForge said.

Generic 4G includes WiMAX and that's controversial. "WiMAX has some technology challenges," said LaForge. "But if we didn't have WiMAX with Clearwire, maybe we wouldn't be seeing the push on LTE. Competition is a good thing; technology innovation and advancement is a good thing. We just need to take in everything with a pragmatic eye."

There's nothing pragmatic about Ericsson's approach to 4G space. It's LTE or bust. "Clearly from the dominant mobility operator perspective the trend is towards LTE," said Arun Bhikshesvaran, CTO and vice president of strategy at Ericsson. "Any technology that gets rolled out has to provide global backwards compatibility because networks don't appear overnight. The only technology that offers you backward compatibility to CDMA and TD-CDMA and wideband-CDMA is LTE. It makes a huge difference because you're not building greenfield networks; these are evolutions of existing networks and the user experience has to be maintained. From that perspective, WiMAX doesn't quite have the same capability."

That might be a little harsh. There might be a place for WiMAX as a fourth generation niche technology, said Myhrer, but "over time, LTE will be the standard bearer for 4G globally. There's no question around that. The (WiMAX) technology itself, there's nothing wrong with it; it's strong and it ultimately will work. The question is whether there will be a market."

There's no question, all four agreed, that 4G is needed. "It's necessary to become more efficient... but I think 3G is going to be here for a long time," concluded Pearson.