As the PC is joined in the workplace by the smartphone and tablet, workers will increasingly expect a mobile network that makes it easier to work on the move.
Enter 4G, a collective term for next generation of wireless technologies offering download and upload speeds several times faster than 3G.
The most commonly used 4G technologies are LTE – Long-Term Evolution – and WiMax – although LTE dominates in the UK and increasingly in the US too.
Speeds of LTE services vary but are generally sold as being five to 10 times faster than 3G services. TechRepublic sister site CNET benchmarked speeds of between 23 and 40Mbps using the 4G EE LTE network recently launched in the UK – although obviously real world performance will vary.
But why should businesses care about 4G, and what are the potential pitfalls when buying 4G-compatible hardware?
As you would expect the amount of benefit a business gets from 4G really depends on how much its workforce or infrastructure rely on mobile comms.
The faster speed and reliability of LTE, over 3G, makes it a good fit for those workers whose job takes them out of the office on a regular basis – the so-called road warriors who will be able to send and receive information at speeds that rival the office broadband without having to find a wi-fi hotspot.
And 4G is not just about speed: it should also provide a more reliable mobile connection than 3G. While busy 3G connections can slow to a crawl, the higher throughput of LTE should provide a network that is less prone to becoming unusable when bogged down said Rosalind Craven, senior search analyst for mobile with IDC.
But businesses should also consider the needs of the future workforce. With enterprise hardware typically being refreshed every two to three years, most firms investing in a new phone or tablet for staff today should at least consider future-proofing by purchasing an LTE-compatible phone. If a firm is upping its use of mobile or cloud-based apps, then giving staff the ability to shunt large amounts of data on the move could help workers get the most from these tools.
4G could also be a boon to the likes of logistics or utility firms, who rely on using machine-to-machine comms to collect data from equipment – although obviously an upgrade from 2G or 3G is only worth it if capacity is an issue.
New services such as unified comms and mobile video calling could also benefit after businesses switch to LTE.
A boost to rural businesses
One of the most significant ways that LTE could benefit business is as a replacement for slow fixed-line broadband.
There are still areas that are broadband notspots; regions where there are generally too few people to make a high speed service commercially viable, and even more locations where broadband speeds top out at a middling 1-2Mbps.
Even if LTE only offers speeds in the region of 20Mbps it will still be far faster than that available in many rural regions in the UK.
“When more rural areas are covered this could be a real lifeline for many businesses – an opportunity to have access to broadband that otherwise they wouldn’t have,” said Matthew Howett, lead regulatory telecoms analyst at Ovum.
WiMax is also already replacing fixed-line broadband in markets in Russia and Africa.
While there have been relatively few mobile handsets that support LTE until recently, there are an increasing number of compatible Windows 8 and Android handsets on the market – with Samsung, HTC and Huawei among the major manufacturers to offer support. The Apple iPad 3 supports works with LTE services in the US, and the iPhone 5 is also rumoured to support 4G. For laptops and PCs there are also a variety of dongles that work with LTE services.
But it’s still early days for LTE-compatible devices, and IDC’s Craven said before buying it may be worth waiting six months, when there will be more devices available at a wider range of prices.
There are about 40 commercially available LTE networks worldwide. Availability of 4G services varies from country to country, from fairly wide-ranging coverage in the US to being (currently) almost non-existent in the UK.
In the US, the major telecoms operators claim to offer LTE services in most major cities, for example Verizon says that its service is available in 371 cities, covering nearly 75 per cent of the U.S. population.
Despite lack of 4G in the UK, national coverage is being rolled out. EE, the mobile operator previously known as Everything Everywhere, is promising its 4G LTE service will be available in 16 UK cities before Christmas 2012.
The operator is aiming for the 4G to be available to 70 percent of the British population by 2013 and 98 percent by 2014.
Devices that include 4G will also be able to fall back to use 3G or 2G connections where coverage is unavailable.
Whereas operators of LTE services have so far generally charged significantly more for contracts than for 3G services, prices are expected to fall in an attempt to stimulate LTE uptake.
It will be important that the price of LTE services appeals to businesses and consumers if operators want to capture market share as the number of people with LTE-compatible handsets grow, said IDC’s Craven.
“Pricing is changing very rapidly, initially there were quite big premiums but these have really shrunk,” she said.
Before picking up a 4G device businesses need to look carefully at which regions it is able to access 4G services in.
International travellers may struggle to use 4G services abroad due to incompatibilities between 4G services offered in different countries.
Much of this incompatibility arises from mobile network operators offering 4G LTE services that rely upon different sets of radio frequencies.
For instance, the LTE services rolled out in the UK will be based on the 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz and 2.6GHz frequency bands, while most US operators use 700MHz. A recent report by the GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence Service predicts at least 38 different radio frequency combinations may be used in LTE deployments internationally in the next few years.
Devices can theoretically work with LTE services in different countries by supporting multiple bands, but this multi-band support is still limited. For example the iPad 3 supports both the 700MHz and 2.1GHz bands, but is still incompatible with LTE services in the UK.
The problem isn’t only international, in the US it seems that some handsets and tablets aren’t able to swap between the LTE services of different operators, thanks to operators decision to use different bands, or portions of bands, for their LTE service.
As such, businesses should check whether a device supports the bands used for 4G services in regions they operate in.
The lack of 4G compatibility internationally is offset by the fact that 4G devices will be able to switch to using 3G or 2G services.
A further complication when it comes to international 4G services is the US rolling out a different high-speed wireless technology called WiMax, which is incompatible with LTE. However LTE is becoming more common in the states and is likely to become standard 4G service there according to IDC’s Craven.