NTT Goes for 4G Trials

NTT DoCoMo has recently announced trials for its so-called fourth generation (4G) mobile phone network technology in Japan. Just what we need, you may think, when there is still so much work to do getting 3G networks up and running.

Yet, in light of the financial warning from DoCoMo’s parent company NTT Corp., talking up future technology may be a sensible move for this big fish, reassuring the school of developers and hardware vendors that swim in its wake.

Andy Buss, analyst at Canalys.com Ltd., points out that NTT has just had "one of the largest corporate losses in the company’s history." He says talking about next-generation technology may be a handy way to divert attention from the financial mess and reassure the industry of the company's status as a technology leader.

The telecom giant is expecting a group net loss of 865 billion yen (US$6.52 billion) for the fiscal year ended in March. The company is blaming much of that loss on writedowns on DoCoMo’s investments in overseas mobile units. For the year, NTT says it will post a 506 billion yen (US$3.82 billion) loss on DoCoMo's investment in AT&T Wireless and a 359 billion yen (US$2.71 billion) loss on the investment in Dutch operator KPN Mobile.

So why would this be the time to start talking about next-generation technology? Because DoCoMo is in a position to set industry standards.

As Unstrung has highlighted before (see I-Mode a No-Go for Euros? ), DoCoMo has much closer ties to its network equipment providers and handset manufacturers than many of its European or U.S. rivals. Because of its dominant position in its home market, DoCoMo can basically dictate the hardware specifications it requires and give its content partners a set of parameters to which they must write. This is one of the reasons the carrier managed to launch the first true 3G service in the world last December.

With the 4G technology, the company is conducting feasibility trials to get experience in how the system works, which will allow it to draw up a roadmap for its hardware partners and developers, says Canalys.com's Buss. This is a fairly long-term affair. "[4G] is unlikely to be implemented before 2010," he believes.

There are scant details about the actual technology that NTT will use to deliver these 4G services. The company itself says it expects the new wireless technology to have maximum transmission speeds of 100 Mbit/s. This is over 200 times faster than the company's recently introduced 3G wireless network. "Sometime around this summer, DoCoMo will begin practical evaluations of key technologies for its 4G packet wireless communications system as well as implement the experimental system to demonstrate their benefits," reads one company statement.

The technology seems likely to deliver some of the multimedia capabilities originally promised for 3G. As more carriers start to roll out 3G systems and test implementations, it has become obvious that the technology will not be able to deliver some of the video capabilities initially imagined, because the bandwidth and data transfer speeds will not be available. Wide-scale video conferencing and other features are more likely to arrive with 4G, building on 3G technology. "[4G] is not going to be revolutionary in the way that 3G is," Buss comments.

NTT says technology will enable people to do things such as view high-definition video on their handsets. "It would be interesting to see the handsets and power specifications," comments Buss.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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