4G: Running Before You Can Walk

Market's desire to hype certain technologies as '4G' is creating unnecessary confusion and undermining current services- Justin Springham

June 4, 2003

4 Min Read
4G: Running Before You Can Walk

Despite getting burnt by over-hyping 3G and WAP, certain people in the wireless industry are now happily talking up wireless LAN and other current technologies as "4G" as if these previous fiascos never happened

Grrrrrrrrrrrr...Wassa matter witchoo people? Didn't you learn your lesson the last two times the public got turned off a wireless technology because of ridiculous marketing claims?

[Deep breath]

Anyway, until recently the concept of a fourth-generation cellular market conjured up images of R&D engineers at Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) working maniacally in hidden crypts (see DoCoMo Trialing 4G and Koreans, Finns: Axis of 4G). 4G was happily confined to the laboratories – a technology that would, at best, target a 2012 timeframe once spectrum issues had been resolved and third-generation wireless services were reaching a mass market.

However, recent weeks have seen this concept of a 4G world become the industry’s latest buzzword, despite the fact that early 3G networks are faltering and most European carriers have delayed rollout to late 2004.

And WAP? Ha! WAP's dead, baby!! Dead!!!

But this time around it isn’t just the carriers who are to blame – startups are also touting their products as the 4G innovations, even though they are far removed from any previous image of the technology.

This was firmly in evidence at last month’s WLAN Event in London. MyZones Ltd. CEO Clive Mayhew-Begg left onlookers scratching their heads in disbelief as he declared that his company’s launch – what he claims is the world’s first integrated wireless LAN broadband service – was true 4G technology (see WLAN's Big Day Out).

(They were also scratching their heads at his name.)

The media is partly to blame (as always). In the last few weeks articles have appeared in international publications hailing the arrival of wireless LAN as the 4G Technology of the Future. Such hype is detrimental to the nascent market’s development, and is at odds with the local area networking concept of the technology. Unless significant steps are made in the introduction of pan-continental roaming agreements between carriers and WISPs, wireless LAN is unlikely to offer anywhere near ubiquitous, blanket coverage.

Recent press headlines have also labeled services from the likes of Flarion Technologies, IPWireless Inc. , ArrayComm Inc., and Navini Networks Inc. – which attempt to bridge this gap in coverage to provide a form of "nomadic broadband" – as '4G Wireless Broadband Systems.' Confused yet?

Much of the misunderstanding stems from the fact that no standard definition for 4G currently exists. The best the industry can settle on, for the time being at least, is a high-speed wireless network covering a wide area, designed above all for carrying data, rather than voice or a mixture of the two.

Even the future success of true 4G technology is far from certain. A big question mark hangs over its validity.

Whilst the theory goes that 4G could potentially crank data rate speeds up to 20 Mbit/s – 10 times faster than any network in operation today, offering wide-scale video conferencing and high-definition movie downloads – the question remains, does anyone really want such applications?

Hey! They laughed at the Popeil Pocket Fisherman™, too!

After all, there hasn't exactly been a massive clamor for the simple multimedia applications that can be offered on 2.5G and 3G networks.

Analysts and market watchers are adamant that far too little time has been spent looking at what type of applications would be relevant to support 4G technology. Besides, wouldn’t users be content with slower data speeds but ubiquitous coverage?

Don’t get me wrong: The future success of any industry depends on its ability to continually develop and reinvent itself. The early testing of 4G cellular technology in preparation for future commercial rollout is a necessary step in the evolution of our industry, but it won’t become a reality in the next five years. Given that 3G has only just been launched this year, anything earlier than 2012 is unrealistic.

And neither is it justified to saddle the industry’s latest Great White Hope – wireless LAN (or any other "mobile broadband" service for that matter) – with the 4G label.

The long-term health of the market depends upon the success of marketing today’s technologies. The disturbing fact is that such truisms have been expressed before, and yet here we are again with the same problems.

What chance that we learn this time?

— Justin Merrydew-Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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