The Future of 4G

December 11, 2010

4G, the fourth generation of mobile networks that will supersede the 3G and 2G families of standards, is already upon us. A new mobile generation has appeared every 10th year since the first 1G system was first introduced in 1981, followed by the 2G system that started to roll out in 1992, and 3G, which appeared in 2001. The development of 4G systems started in 2002, and is expected to provide a comprehensive and secure all-IP based solution for facilities such as ultra-broadband Internet access, IP telephony, gaming services, and streamed multimedia.

Wireless data traffic today already exceeds that of voice traffic, and users can no longer live without their mobile devices. Carriers need to adopt new strategies to meet current demand, while still delivering new devices and applications that will drive even further mobile broadband adoption. The wireless telecommunications industry as a whole has early assumed the term 4G as a short hand way to describe those advanced wireless strategies that, among other things, are based on or employ wide channel OFDMA and SC-FDE technologies and an all-IP based architecture.

However, a distinction needs to be made about some technology that is being sold as 4G and what really 4G  is about. Confusion has often been caused by some mobile carriers in the United States who have launched products advertised as 4G, but which can only qualify as 3.9G technologies. Pre-4G technologies such as mobile WiMAX and first-release 3G Long term evolution (LTE) are often branded as 4G, but these technologies do not fulfill the ITU-R requirements of data rates approximately up to 1 Gbit/s for 4G systems. The “official” 4G refers to IMT-Advanced (International Mobile Telecommunications Advanced), as defined by ITU-R.

An IMT-Advanced cellular system must target peak download rates of 100Mbit/s for high mobility devices (such as cellphones) and 1 Gbit/s for low mobility devices (such as standalone wireless modems), according to the ITU requirements. Scalable bandwidths up to at least 40 MHz should be provided. The increased bandwidth and higher data transmission rates will allow 4G users the ability to utilize high definition video and the video conferencing features of mobile devices attached to a 4G network. The 4G wireless system is expected to provide a comprehensive IP solution where multimedia applications and services can be delivered to the user on an ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ basis with a satisfactory high data rate, premium quality and high security.

4G is thus described as MAGIC:

  • Mobile multimedia
  • Anytime anywhere
  • Global mobility support
  • Integrated wireless solution
  • Customized personal service

According to a report by the Yankee Group, 2011 promises to be a big year for 4G, as operators scramble to roll out network upgrades, new devices hit the street and marketing for next-generation services reaches fever pitch. But while many players are eager for 4G to stir excitement, few will reap 4G revenue in 2011. Yankee Group predicts a slow start for 4G but says moves made by players in 2011 will determine their ultimate fate in the marketplace.

“Connectivity–especially mobile connectivity–drives disruption in the telecom arena,” said Jason Armitage, senior analyst at Yankee Group and a co-author of the report. “Once 4G takes hold, its impact will be swift and profound, and 2011 is the year to prepare.”

Yankee Group’s 2011 predictions for 4G are as follows:

  1. 4G will be a drop in the ocean. By the end of 2011, the world’s most important 4G technology (LTE) will account for only 0.04 percent of all mobile lines.
  2. 4G will fail to win the enterprise. Currently, less than a third of enterprise decision-makers believe 4G is important; that number won’t budge by year end.
  3. The 4G killer device will be a hotspot. Users will gravitate to hotspots’ simplicity and savings, reducing 4G subscriptions in the long run.
  4. Competition in the U.S. will create a 4G marketing mess. As operators slap the “4G” moniker on everything from WiMAX and LTE to HSPA+, confusion will abound.
  5. A denial-of-service attack will take a 4G network down. In their rush to roll out 4G, operators are cutting corners on security; one unlucky operator will pay the price.
  6. Chinese vendors will beat 3G incumbents in their own backyards. Both Huawei and ZTE will make key 4G wins outside Asia, to the detriment of established players.
  7. 4G users will spend twice as much time on the mobile Web as their non-4G counterparts. Companies that invest in mobile Web sites and free or near-free rich media content will benefit most.
  8. Mobile video will not drive consumers to 4G. Mobile video won’t be the killer 4G app everyone expects; instead, consumers will spend more time with music services like Pandora and Slacker.
  9. The Web will not save operators in the mobile apps market. Operators think 4G will give them a leg up in mobile apps, but Apple and Google will still lead the market in 2011.
  10. MVNO hype will build, but most of it will lead to nothing. 4G MVNOs will fail for the same reason most 2G and 3G MVNOs failed: Most won’t complement their hosts’ businesses.
  11. Pricing will end in tiers. 4G will herald the introduction of tiered mobile data pricing models, and flat-rate pricing will be gone forever.
  12. Carrier VoIP will still be AWOL, despite 4G. 4G’s speed and bandwidth are multimedia must-haves but not big voice necessities. Few operators will launch services before 2013, allowing over-the-top companies to gain an early lead.
  13. Google will take the wheel in mobile data. Currently behind Apple and others in the mobile space, Google will quickly grab the mobile lead as 4G rolls out. “More bandwidth means more data traffic, and Google is the most successful company at monetizing that traffic,” states Yankee.

The report additionally predicts that “4G will fail to win the enterprise” putting enterprises on the losing end and slating  Sprint as a big winner. And the prediction that “4G users will spend twice as much time on the mobile Web as their non-4G counterparts” ultimately hints that companies such as Wal-Mart, Jet Blue, Jumptap and Apple are to benefit, while Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and all those that currently don’t offer mobile Websites, are poised for losing out, concluding that “companies across the industry need to position themselves for the coming changes.”