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

standardsarefun 12/4/2012 | 11:56:12 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk Actually the claim for "4G" is even more stupid if you look at the history of 1G, 2G and 3G

Each of these "generations" was basically a fundamentally different radio technology connected to a cellular mobile network using base stations, base station controler (BSC for GSM, RNC for UMTS, etc.) and a core network with MSC (plus PDN for cdma2000, SGSN/GGSN for GSM and UMTS, etc.).

The basic model was always the same with the operator running a "walled garden" style service using licenced spectrum and hence a network engineering based on balancing traffic load, coverage and propagation modelling.

A "real" 4G (if it ever exists) would follow this tradition. The next WRC is expected to make a spectrum allocation (which, also as per tradition, the USA will probably not adopt) and the current research is still pointing towards a system with a cellular structure and network planning (but, of course, the cell size is decreasing). These systems are probably not going to be commercial before 2015 but it is now time to start work since "it takes a long time" to define a whole new generation of mobile technology.

I would put Flarion as some sort of "late 3G" technology. It is basically cellular in architecture (except the core network is now "only mobile-IP") and it seems they are assuming a network engineering based on licenced spectrum.

WLAN and some of the other shorter-term technologies (UWB?) are parallel to the celluar mobile generation "thing". They are "only radio" (no defined core network) and they use shared spectrum (and hence no real network engineering is possible). In practice WLAN will, to some extent, interwork with cellular (at least for authenication and maybe billing and some services) but the coupling will stay rather loose.

martycell 12/4/2012 | 11:55:59 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk Justin suggests that the next generation of wireless access won't happen until 2012. The reason, he says, is that we have to live through 3G first. He correctly states that ubiquitous service and useful applications are the key. But, for a guy who is rebelling against hype, Justin shows signs of having succumbed to it.

Two killer applications for wireless broadband access remain ignored because 3g cannot hope to service them. In fact, it's hard to find anything really useful that 3G does that isn't done as effectively by 2.5G (which many carriers now hype as 3G).

People are inherently mobile. And yet, there are 130 million people in the U.S. tethered to a wall connection when they access the Internet and over 90% are doing this at dial-up speeds. If someone can provide ubiquitous wireless access at reasonable data rates and at costs comparable to dial-up service, a market is ready to explode.

A pipe dream? More Hype? In Sydney, Australia, TODAY, Personal Broadband Australia (PBBA) is serving most of Sydney with 1 megabit-per-second speeds using ArrayComm's iBURST system. There are over 400 trial customers. When the service goes commercial in October, cost of service will be comparable to dial-up ISP rates. Korea and the U.S. will have similar systems in place next year.

These systems are optimized for the market and for applications that people are already dependent upon. What is 3G optimized for?

The challenge is NOT "standards". The challenge is serving the public, the people, with things they want - and technology-for-the-sake-of-technology is not one of these things.
lrmobile_castro 12/4/2012 | 11:55:56 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk "Each of these "generations" was basically a fundamentally different radio technology connected to a cellular mobile network using base stations, base station controler (BSC for GSM, RNC for UMTS, etc.) and a core network with MSC (plus PDN for cdma2000, SGSN/GGSN for GSM and UMTS, etc.)"

virtually every vendor mentioned in that economist article is using OFDM (basically a fundamentally different radio technology). Moreover, if ericsson and nokia can call THEIR VERSION of W-CDMA 3G then firms mentioned in that article should be able to call themselves 8G on a comparative basis alone.
blephen 12/4/2012 | 11:55:51 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk from nonsense to absurdity...

from today's (6/11) newsfeed right here on our own delightfully subversive Unstrung. For your chewing enjoyment.



standardsarefun 12/4/2012 | 11:55:11 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk Castro,
But here is the "generation problem" all over again. OFDM is nothing new (heard of 802.11a?) and it is already planned for inclusion into the 3GPP radio specifications as a new downlink.

That's what was behind my comment that Flarion et al are really "just 3G".

Besides, if "real 4G" is for use in new spectrum (that is for use in some band that is currently used by some ancient radio system like broadcast TV or fixed point-to-point links) then isn't it too early to fix the radio design?
blephen 12/4/2012 | 11:54:52 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk Sure OFDM is old, older than you think. It's been around forever. As a modulation scheme it has its pluses and minuses and it happens to be the flavor of the month. But Flarion's implementation is pretty impressive and is most certainly a significant enough gain over CDMA2000 to warrant some kind of differentiation. And there are others who deserve the same kind of treatment.

A little history, a little polemical argument:

For lack of a better term, 4G emerged a few years ago as a marketing term to differentiate next-gen WAN technology optimized for wireless IP from UMTS. Because it encompassed a wide range of innovations, it was meaningless as a technical term and over time has been adopted by a wide range of players, from the usual suspect OEM's who always get to define the discourse, to the various subsets of WiFi.

But for the legitimate contenders who offer substantively better alternatives to 3G, there really wasn't any other way to differentiate themselves. That's marketing. If you can't place yourself within the landscape in some 40K soundbite, you don't get recognized.

So as in the Flarion case, what are companies like ArrayComm et al which is banking on arguably the most advanced wireless technology in the world to do? The core technology driving their innovative systems doesn't even fit into the "generational" discourse--a discourse which is (archaically) defined by the increasingly diminished returns of modulation schemes and ought by all rights to be unceremoniouly tossed onto the proverbial trash heap.

ArrayComm's spatial diversity (smart antennas) can improve upon 3G capacity by a factor of 40X, mitigate interference and signal fading and reducing overall TCO by magnitudes.

If such innovators have any hope of getting the attention they deserve in this hegemonically controlled marketplace, they have to use terms that have some relative meaning in the prevailing discourse. And that has meant using something with a "G" on the end of it.

Half the time it isn't even the companies themselves who place the moniker on it. As Justin candidly pointed out, the media, are often to blame for this reductionist labeling. Of course now that 4G has been appropriated by so many pretenders, it's meaningless, but it served its purpose for a time by putting legitimate innovators on the map where they belong...way beyond the 3G white elephant built by a committee dominated by scoundrels.

Maybe it's all for the best, maybe people will finally throw the bums out, boycott the committees and say the truth about this scandalous and outrageously expensive snafu and its derivatives. Maybe if we all scream together like those folks in Whoville...

And maybe the playing field will level out as a result. Maybe we'll just do it the old way. Throw those innovations up against the wall and see what sticks.

Too radical a rant? maybe. Me, I'm betting on the innovators.

'nuff said'

lrmobile_castro 12/4/2012 | 11:53:48 PM
re: 4G: Running Before You Can Walk Excellent post Blephen!
Sign In