The short life and death of 4G

24 Feb 2006

Wi-Fi and cellular have been cagily eyeing each other for half a decade, varying between suspicion and indifference.

But at Barcelona two weeks ago the cellular industry delivered its verdict on WLAN: inevitably, it's about integration.

The news came from across the board. Intel and the GSM Association agreeing that Centrino will support HSDPA, Hutchison adding a Skype client, Motorola and Nokia announcing a bundle of new Wi-Fi-enabled phones.

Some traditional comms vendors will trumpet this as the triumph of HSDPA over Wimax; that with its capacity to deliver 1 Mbps or so in real bandwidth the 3.5G standard makes mobile broadband a reality, forcing the Wi-Fi-Wimax crowd to a compromise.

But the reverse is just as true. HSDPA handsets in volumes and variety are a good two years away (though some operators are claimed to be planning a PC card service later this year).

Meanwhile, mobile operators are under a pincer attack from the device segment and the growth of Wi-Fi.

The cellular-Wi-Fi phones will see a slice of operator revenues at the top end of the market.

Wi-Fi networks continue to expand. Mesh networks are a reality in a number of US cities, in the London financial district and places like Taipei and Kaohsiung. Some might question the capacity of mesh, but that is not an issue for early adopters. They will help create a community of wireless IP voice users, bypassing cellular.

So the news from Barca shows cellular acknowledging reality and going where customers want it to go, which is to have access to data through the wireless tech of their choice, be it UMTS, HSDPA, Wi-Fi or some short-range standard.

All to the good.

And whatever you say about it, the business convergence of UMTS-HSDPA and the Wi-Fi-Wimax camps is pretty simple. There's no difficulty in putting HSDPA into laptops and Wi-Fi into phones.

Would that you could say the same about 4G. Colleague John Tanner, writing in Wireless Asia, has described it as 'mind-bogglingly complex'. Were talking HSDPA, EV-DO Revs A and B, Wimax, WiBro, Wi-Fi, UWB, ZigBee, the various flavors of mobile TV, IP core, OFDM, MIMO, VoIP, video over IP, and mesh.

Why bother‾ Well, the 3GPP community will. If you thought 3G standardization was politicized and complicated, wait till you see 4G. 3GPP will plod on for another five years to deliver a gargantuan, bloated compromised 'family' of standards, backwards-compatible with every known radio and meeting the political needs of the US, the European and Chinese lobbies.

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