The Evolving Network
By Holly Bartlett, Tue Jun 24 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Lines between various technologies become blurred in their rapid development.

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 wireless technologies."

Not exactly a clear definition, and it gives you an idea of just how far off the technology is.

Concepts BecomeDefinitions

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.

Base stations - 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.

Talk 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 Europe.

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.

We've been 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 delays.

The DownturnEconomy

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 4G.

Dreams DriveDevelopment

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 bike."

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 really 4G."

Again, others don't really know what the term means at all.

Holly Bartlett is a freelance journalist covering wireless technology.