Even before 3G comes into use this Fall, work is
continuing with the fourth-generation mobile systems (4G for short,
naturally) for planned introduction in 2011.
4G will represent
another quantum leap in Internet connection speeds and picture quality.
Enhanced 4G network protocols could bring throughput speeds up to 50
times faster than what today's WCDMA technology can deliver. Such
speeds enable, for example, 4G protocols to deliver remote
three-dimensional visual experiences for the first time.
Despite the ever-increasing economic burden of costly telecom
networks that have yet to meet their profit promise, a buzz is beginning
about 4G: the Next Big Thing. No one in the industry can yet give an
exact definition for the term, and some speak of it in terms more
frequently heard at New Age religion seminars. But already some
researchers and telecom operators use it to evoke a braver new wireless
world than its predecessor, 3G, that would create applications that most
consumers can't yet properly imagine.
"There is not an
exact technical definition for 4G," says Hakan Eriksson, the head
of research and development at Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson.
"It's a research topic that goes beyond 2010," adds Osten
Makitalo, Telia Mobile's research director who helped develop
mobile telephony in Scandinavia more than a decade ago: "4G is a
system of systems that can take advantage of all kinds of different
Not exactly a clear definition, and
it gives you an idea of just how far off the technology
In a nutshell, 4G is an ultra
high-speed wireless network, an information superhighway without cables.
The new network will enable wireless, three-dimensional augmented and
virtual reality connections between phone users.
- the now-costly transmitters that pass mobile-phone signals from one
antenna to the other - would be as widespread as light bulbs. As
envisioned, 4G would enable wireless data transmission at the dizzying
speed of up to 100 megabits per second, exponentially faster than
today's handsets, which transfer a mere 50 kilobits per second
under ideal conditions over GPRS.
Moreover, some services like
wireless real-time video links won't be as expensive with 4G as
they will be with 3G, the system on which companies have just spent
billions of dollars for licenses, but which isn't really up and
running smoothly yet.
For those who don't speak telecom
fluently, a little more explanation may be useful: 2G is the current
system, which allows the transfer of small text messages, while 1G is
old-fashioned analog, with very limited data transfer abilities.
Basically, 1G is meant for old-style wireless calls - not the
ones made from snazzy lightweight phones, but instead calls made with
the heavy bricks and their meter-long antennae that once were popular
with business people and park rangers in the early 1990s.
about 4G comes amid a tidal wave of developments in new telecom
technology. In just a couple of short years, we've gone from the
wireless application protocol (WAP), to general packet radio service
(GPRS), to full 3G rollouts in Asia and trials which are now underway in
WAP is a protocol that defines TCP/IP use and web
browsing for mobile devices. GPRS, or 2.5G, is a telecom network that
allows data to be sent in packets of 50 kilobits per second, a slightly
higher speed than standard fare 2G systems.
saying for quite a while now that new wireless technologies will one day
soon allow consumers to use their mobile phones to surf the Net, watch
real-time video footage and download audio tunes. But that dream keeps
slipping, and the latest wave of technology either isn't up and
running or faces significant problems and
To the continuing agony of investors, few
companies have shown how exactly they plan to pay back the billions of
dollars of 3G license fees or how they will bill and make money from
services that aren't developed yet. It is clear, however, that the
glitziest wireless services are likely be too expensive for average
consumers in the next few years.
For example, based on the
expenses of setting up 3G, it looks like simple video conferencing may
cost up to hundreds of dollars per call. Gone is the feel-good factor of
telecom operators' glitzy wireless Web ads. With 4G ill-defined
and meaning different things to different people, and with the
difficulties of 3G, development is tough. Along with some telecom
equipment makers, some investors are unimpressed with
So what's driving telecom sages to
discuss 4G anyway? Researchers at companies like Ericsson and NTT DoCoMo
are mainly focusing on the technological aspect and applications of 4G.
They see it as a new so-called air interface, a wireless way of
transferring data from base stations to terminals like mobile phones,
which will lead to unthinkable applications a decade from now.
They are also thinking about new antennae, base stations and
whatever else may be involved with the building of an advanced new
network. Some characteristics: 4G would entail 20 megabits to 100
megabits per second data transfer - compared to less than 10 kilobits
per second for the legacy GSM system - the kind of speed that techno
geeks dream of.
With 4G, the world would have base stations
everywhere, ensuring phone users' connection to a high-speed
network anywhere, anytime - just the way operators promised in their ads
for 3G, only this time, it would be affordable and 10 years down the
road instead of tomorrow. Other nifty but yet-to-be-developed 4G
tricks that would make Buck Rogers look medieval: video connections
between phone users and homes, motion-controlled devices and eyeglasses
with 3-D video projects.
Thinking so far ahead is nothing new.
Many leading companies like Nokia and Motorola have been promoting
imaginative uses of 3G technology for years. Ericsson did the same, and
today the company is the leading supplier third-generation telecom
infrastructure, conquering more than half of all 3G network construction
contracts with operators worldwide.
A Hodgepodge ofExisting Systems
"We're simply trying to
imagine what the world would look like with such high bandwidth,"
says Mr. Eriksson. "Nothing is clear yet. But we have to start
thinking about it." Others don't think of 4G as a new
technology, but rather as a hodgepodge of existing or
soon-to-be-developed systems like GPRS, wireless local area networks,
GSM 3G and Edge.
Combing these technologies and others could
allow consumers to toggle between high-speed data services and low-speed
services when needed. "It's like travelling," says Mr
Makitalo. "When you're in a hurry, you take an airplane. In
other cases, when it's more practical, you take the car, or your
Telia hopes to start its 4G services even before 3G
networks are set to arrive, with HomeRun, its wireless local area
network service at the Stockholm airport. The idea is that later this
year, HomeRun will let visiting business travellers log on to the Web by
plugging into a wireless local area network (WLAN), card into their
laptops and connecting to a GPRS network.
That means people can
use the wireless LAN services to access the Web at high speed and use
GPRS for accessing text files or e-mail messages, which don't
require a very high bandwidth.
"There is an irony
here," says Mr Makitalo. "4G comes first, 3G comes
second." But Mr Eriksson doesn't agree with the usage of
"4G" for such a mixture of technologies. "They're
talking about the evolution of 3G," he says. "That's not
Again, others don't really know what the
term means at all.
Bartlett is a freelance journalist covering wireless