Smartphones have been held back to an extent by the limitations of the cellular networks. Current 3G systems, while much faster than the old 2G standards, are still slow in comparison with even relatively inexpensive home broadband options such as cable, and lag far behind fiber optic technologies such as Verizon's FiOS. In testing the speeds of the four major U.S. wireless carriers' 3G implementations earlier this year, PC World discovered that average download speeds ranged from 795 kbps to 1.4 mbps, with upload speeds ranging from 311 kbps to 773 kpbs. FiOS, on the other hand, provides download rates of up to 50 mbps with 20 mbps uploads. Cable Internet services can often offer 5 to 10 mbps or more.
More and more people are used to these high-speed connections and when they start using smartphones, their expectations are high. They don't want to sit and wait for web pages to render or deal with jerky video. And when they're using their smartphones for business, it's even more critical that they're able to accomplish their tasks in a timely manner. The good news is that help is here (in the case of some carriers) or on the way in the form of 4G, the fourth generation of mobile wireless technology. (I recently wrote about what 4G is in my weekly Win7News newsletter.)
The 4G potential
Not all 4G technologies are created equal, and in fact, there is a bit of disagreement within the industry regarding what constitutes 4G. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) specifies data rates up to 1 gbps for 4G, but the technologies currently labeled 4G by U.S. carriers don't meet that lofty standard. The WiMAX and HSPA+ technologies that are marketed as 4G by Sprint and T-Mobile, respectively, have been shown in real-world tests to offer speeds of 4 to 5.5 mbps down and 500 kbps to around 1.2 mbps up.
Verizon and AT&T are still working on rolling out their 4G networks, both of which will be based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. LTE is technically a "pre-4G" technology, but its successor, LTE Advanced (which is backwardly compatible with LTE), will offer true 4G speeds. As both carriers move to LTE, this will eliminate the great divide that has existed in U.S. wireless communications whereby there were two competing and incompatible technologies: GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) and CDMA (Verizon and Sprint). Phones and other devices made for one of these could not be used with the other, thus hardware vendors had to make two very different versions of every device if they wanted those devices to operate on both GSM and CDMA networks.
In addition to bringing the top two carriers in line with one another (and with most of the rest of the world) in one standard, LTE (even the initial releases) offers fast data speeds that compare favorably to the WiMAX and HSPA+ networks already in use. The Verizon LTE network, which was launched December 5, 2010 in 38 major metropolitan areas, demonstrated speeds of 20 mbps in a pre-launch press demonstration that I attended last week, although the company is being conservative and estimating that download speeds on the "fully loaded" network will be around 5 to 12 mbps, with 2 to 5 mbps uploads.
Speed isn't the only advantage of the LTE technology. Because it operates in the 700 MHz spectrum, the signal will also penetrate more easily into buildings, reducing or eliminating the problem of losing signal strength when inside certain structures. Latency (which refers to the amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel from one point to another) is also lower in comparison to 3G technologies. High latency can negate some or all of the advantages of a high bandwidth connection for real-time communications. Verizon notes that the latency on its LTE network is about one-fourth of the latency on the 3G network, going from about 200 milliseconds on the 3G network to less than 50 on the 4G. Thanks to the faster throughput and lower latency, the power usage of your smartphone will be reduced, giving you less battery drain.
How will businesses benefit from 4G?
The significantly faster data rates of 4G will improve the smartphone user's experience for all the applications that we run on our phones today, especially those that need high bandwidth. Video conferencing will become more pleasant and more real time, as will streaming of live audio and video, without the delays for buffering or the occasional hiccups that we see today.
We can also expect brand new applications will emerge that weren't possible or didn't work well with the slower networks. For example, using Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to connect to the office PC from a smartphone or a tablet is often an unsatisfying experience due to the low network bandwidth. That should improve considerably on the faster 4G networks. Another example is embedded communications technologies in automobiles and public transport vehicles, kiosks, and business environments.
In addition, Verizon (and presumably other carriers) is enhancing the security on the 4G network to provide such features as strong mutual authentication, integrity protection, and optional multilevel bearer data encryption. Security is particularly important to business users who may be sending confidential client information or sensitive business information over the network.
For those business users who have been using Verizon's CDMA network, the move to LTE will make it much easier to travel outside the United States and still be able to use your same smartphone. Once LTE is deployed globally, roaming is expected to be a seamless and much easier experience (although we can also expect that it will continue to be an expensive one).
Once 4G coverage becomes widespread, this will enable true "hyper-mobility," in which workers are no longer tied down to a desk or other physical location. Employees with smartphones will be able to do their work wherever they are -- at home, in the field, or on the road. Transferring large amounts of data between corporate servers and remote end users will no longer be an excruciating exercise. By tethering their laptop computers to their smartphones' 4G connections or to mobile hotspot devices, or by using laptops that have 4G chips built in, workers will be able to remain as productive when they're out of the office as when they're in it.
Related TechRepublic resources
- 4G networks: Know the basics before jumping on the bandwagon
- HTC EVO 4G review: Everything you need to know
- Video calling apps for the HTC EVO 4G
- Samsung Epic 4G review: Everything you need to know
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.