Saturday, November 1, 2008

The 4G Conundrum

The announcement by Cox Cable this week that it is going to build two wireless networks as well as utilize Sprint's wireless network got me thinking again about what I call the 4G Conundrum. I just don't understand how 3G and 4G networks will coexist.

Both 3G and 4G networks will be targeted to the same set of users: laptops, smart phones, and the iPhone class of handsets. Sure, operators can deploy 4G in areas were there is a high level of 3G use as a more economical way to add capacity. But it they provide higher speeds on these 4G hot zones, people will see a significant decrease in speed when they move to a 3G zone. The recent problems with iPhones on the ATT network show that these uses see this kind of performance decrease as a network failure. I think that this kind of zone based 4G deployment will just not provide the level of service that the Internet heads that use iPhone like devices will want.

The other thing is that 3G HSP continues to be enhanced. Performance is getting better. These advanced 3G networks are adopting the same flat IP architectures that is part of 4G networks. The question here is if 4G is really enough better than these advanced 3G technologies to justify deploying it.

There is one situation where the the case for 4G seems clear. The CDMA operators are moving to 4G LTE technologies to enable international roaming. Today the lack of international roaming is a big disadvantage for CDMA operators compared to GSM/WCDMA 3G operators. Verizon is adopting 4G LTE as are many other CDMA operators.

I do think that nearly all carriers will migrate to 4G LTE by 2020. There will be a few such as Sprint and Korea Telecom that will operate WiMAX 4G networks. It is very likely that handsets will be able to support roaming between WiMAX and LTE by that time. Operators will bite the bullet as HSPA's WCDMA reaches its limits and is surpassted by 4G OFDM technologies.

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