The Decade of 4G

I think I see a pattern emerging in the evolution of the long-range wireless technology used in cellular networks. It appears that it takes eight to ten years to truly upgrade from one generation of wireless technology to the next.

What does this mean for you and me? Well, we were already talking about 3G back when I started covering wireless in 1999. Yet we're still debating whether mainstream networks are actually 3G. (See The iPhone is 3G.)

I believe this indicates that 2010 and beyond will be the decade of 4G, even if we see some foreshadowing of fourth-generation services, such as WiBro in South Korea, already in operation.

Let's define what 3G and 4G actually are.

3G is generally defined as delivering data transfer speeds of 2 Mbit/s when a user is stationary, 384 kbit/s for slowly moving devices, and 144 kbit/s for fast-moving devices, such as handsets in moving vehicles.

4G is currently defined as stationary data transfer speeds of 1 Gbit/s and 100 Mbit/s moving at vehicular speeds. No technology can officially be called 4G yet, but it will likely be based on multiple antenna arrays (MIMO), because splitting and reconstituting the signal is the only way to transmit enough packets fast enough across the air. No commercial 4G networks currently exist, and they are unlikely to happen until after 2010. Plenty of people are already too happy to use it as a marketing buzz word, however.

Nonetheless, I think we can learn a lot from the rollout of 3G networks as we move to 4G. For one thing, never, ever sell the services to users as "4G."

The next generation of wireless is going to be all about video, better music downloads, and a flood of user-generated content for the consumer. Enterprises will be able to move beyond wireless email and start to think about unfettered access to corporate applications on the mobile phone.

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps in the road before we get there, but making wireless more like high-speed wired broadband networking is definitely the promise of 4G.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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