Mobility

Peter Cochrane's Blog: A 4G future

What will it look like?

Written at the convention centre in Gwangju, South Korea and despatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi connection

For some time now there has been an intense industry debate as to what 4G mobile will be and when it will be available. On one side are the traditional mobile phone groups who see 4G as the next logical development step on from 3G, whilst on the other are those who want to fast track the whole process by laying claim to wi-fi and WiMax as the de facto 4G net in the making.

Well, it looks as though the debate could be over as Samsung just demonstrated 1Gbps and 100Mbps mobility at 5kmph and 60kmph respectively at a conference in South Korea this week.

But the reality is that wi-fi and WiMax protocols were never intended or designed to facilitate speedy handovers as terminals traverse contiguous cell sites. So why did people back this option? The promise of a quick kill, easy riches or just a plain inability to read and understand a spec sheet? I suspect the prospect of a fast and immediate financial return had a lot to do with it.

So with this latest Korean demo, will we be able to look forward to 4G services at 100Mbps (and above) soon? I think not! This was just a demo and a definite land grab to get into the market early.

My guess is that this service will arrive in another five to 10 years, and when it does we will be getting something more like 12Mbps to 120Mbps. How come? Remember the marketing of 2.5G, WAP and 3G - they all delivered far less than originally demonstrated, promised and advertised. In particular 3G was supposed to deliver 2Mbps to every handset as the norm, which it clearly couldn't do for technical reasons, and the reality is much more in the range of 50Kbps to 300Kbps.

It always seems to be the case that marketing and sales hype the numbers beyond reality, whilst the technical teams gnash their teeth in the full understanding of the true limitations of the technology and likely practical outcome. Worse, the industry never seems to learn, and I suspect that 4G is about to get the same treatment as 3G before it!

The real killer for 4G is going to be the business model. If it is to be a mere replica of 1.0, 2.0, 2.5 and 3G - just a mobile version of the PSTN - I wouldn't be getting too excited. In the same time frame wi-fi and WiMax will have changed the paradigm of mobile working in large measure, along with public expectation. The big question is going to surround the nature of the mobile terminals and services in five years' time, and I suspect that the appetite for paying will have been further diminished.

The real downer for mobile operators is that they will have to get into the 4G game to survive. What is not at all clear is how they will make any money but it will have to be much more than a connectivity deal - and beyond today's lightweight services.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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