Do we really need 4G?


Do we really need 4G?

Judging from the more than 400 viewers that attended the live FierceWireless' "Mobile Broadband & the 4G Roadmap" Webinar on Wednesday, there is a lot of interest in 4G and what it will mean to the wireless industry. Although the 4G standard hasn't been determined, all the vendors are talking about 4G and several operators (including Sprint, AT&T and Verizon Wireless) have started using the term 4G to trumpet their technology roadmaps. 4G is being equated with open networks and a host of other things that may or may not be true, depending on the current marketing hype cycle.

Webinar panelist Peter Jarich, research director, mobile infrastructure & carrier core with Current Analysis, said that 4G is a term waiting to be defined. Although there are different 4G technology options--UMB, WiMAX and LTE--many have the same technical building blocks, meaning that they are based upon OFDM and use a smart antenna technology. "The technical differences may be minor. It's early. It really comes down to an issue of business models," Jarich said.

But what exactly is driving all these 4G discussions, particularly when 3G still has so much room to grow? Jarich says operators have an incentive to upgrade to 4G if they consider some of the downfalls of 3G such as the intellectual property rights situation. Jarich says that many operators believe that the IPR demands of 3G have made it too costly so they need 4G to deliver services at a cost that is more palatable to the consumer. "Operators are looking for a better type of service that isn't possible with 3G," Jarich said. And, of course, if one competitor in a market debuts 4G, the other operators need to also upgrade to 4G or they risk losing their edge.

Sprint vice president, technology development Ali Tabassi echoed Jarich's views on using 4G, and WiMAX specifically, to deliver a totally different wireless business model--one that offers IP access to all forms of consumer electronics devices. He added that already 260 service providers are in the midst of deploying WiMAX and the ecosystem is still growing. "It's the best use of an IP network that wireless operators can offer," Tabassi said.

Of course, LTE proponents balk at Sprint's assertion that WiMAX is the best option. Ericsson's vice president, strategy and CTO for North America Arun Bhikshesvaran said that based upon the current growth in HSPA (five times more devices and three times more suppliers in one year), consumers are going to demand higher broadband speeds in the near future, something that LTE can and will deliver. "We firmly believe that society expectations will be toward a broadband experience anywhere at any time," Bhikshesvaran said.

The 4G debate is just beginning and much of the posturing reminds me of the 3G discussions back in 2001 and 2002 when many questioned exactly what 3G meant and whether there was consumer demand for broadband wireless. As Jarich says, 4G is a term waiting for definition and until the specifications are set in stone, I expect to hear a lot more interpretations of 4G. -Sue  

P.S. If you would like to view the FierceWireless "Mobile Broadband and the Path to 4G" Webinar, sponsored by Ericsson and Freescale, you can click on the archive here.

And to learn even more about 4G, check out the agenda for our "Path To 4G" seminar at CTIA Wireless 2008. Fierce will be hosting the day-long seminar on April 2, which will feature speakers such as Barry West, CTO of Sprint Nextel and president of  Xohm.  Click here for details. You can register for this event when you register for CTIA.