Next gen or 4G technologies have the potential to fundamentally change the way we communicate. They offer much higher data speeds, better security, better quality of service and, perhaps most important, higher-capacity, more cost-efficient networks. What will that mean to enterprises? And what should you be doing now to prepare? You might only now be starting to grapple with the current generation – 3G HSPA and EvDO networks that cellular carriers have been deploying for the last couple of years and that offer low-level broadband data speeds. But, if you can believe industry hype, it’s not too soon to start thinking about 4G. In fact, the “next generation” of broadband mobile wireless is officially upon us, following the September launch of the Xohm mobile WiMAX service by Sprint and partner Clearwire. 4G mobile should definitely be on medium- and long-term planning lists. How quickly it moves up the list will depend mainly on wireless operators and device manufacturers. The ball is in their court. What it is The first thing to understand is that the term 4G is only loosely defined. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has produced technical requirements for a next-generation mobile standard it calls IMT-Advanced, also sometimes referred to as 4G. But in common usage, the meaning of 4G is less precise. The current incarnation of mobile WiMAX, for example, does not meet all the ITU requirements, yet is usually considered 4G. “Perception is reality,” says David Robinson, vice president of new business planning at Rogers Wireless. “It’s almost like Web 2.0,” says broadband wireless consultant Dawood Khan, a partner in Markham ON-based Kazam Group Inc. “It captures certain objectives that have been set, but it’s not a defined standard.” The objectives? 4G networks will be IP-based, provide indoor and outdoor coverage with mobility, deliver network speeds of 100 Mbps or higher, and ensure high quality of service (QoS) and data security. “Those are the key elements,” Khan says. The other contender for the ITU 4G crown – in fact the leading contender – is LTE (Long Term Evolution), a technology specified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a consortium of telecommunications standards bodies. LTE, which is not yet finalized, is the successor to the 3G GSM/UMTS standard. Both the 3GPP and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the standards body behind wireless specifications, including WiMAX, will likely submit proposals to the ITU based on their respective technologies. In the meantime, LTE and WiMAX are both forging ahead regardless – albeit on different time tables. The rival technologies in fact have much in common. Both are IP-based and use two of the same key radio technologies – Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), a digital modulation scheme that delivers simplicity, scalability and high capacity; and MIMO (multiple input multiple output), a multiple antenna system that minimizes data errors and optimizes speed. Battle lines forming Wireless operators will likely choose one or the other, LTE or WiMAX, though many haven’t yet. Incumbent mobile operators, with the exception of Sprint (at least for its Xohm venture with Clearwire), will almost certainly choose LTE, or have already. Verizon in the U.S., Vodaphone in the UK and China Mobile have announced intentions to adopt LTE. There is little doubt that Rogers, Canada’s sole GSM carrier, will go LTE – the only question is when. “The next logical step for us is LTE,” acknowledges Robinson. Bell Canada and Telus Corp. confirmed last month a plan to cooperate on deploying a HSPA network. The two companies expect to complete the overlay in time for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at a cost of approximately $1 billion. The two companies say HSPA will provide for a smooth transition to 4G. So does that mean 4G in Canada will be all LTE? Certainly no mobile WiMAX champion has emerged here the way Sprint-Clearwire has in the U.S. New entrants, including winning bidders in the recently completed auction of Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum (2GHz range), could theoretically emerge to advocate the mobile WiMAX cause, but don’t count on it in the short term. A significant chunk of AWS spectrum – ideal for WiMAX, less so for LTE – did go to new entrants, but Khan is betting they won’t be among the first to deploy 4G networks, preferring to go after lower hanging fruit at the entry-level end of the market. There are other regional providers with spectrum that could be used for mobile WiMAX. They include fixed wireless ISPs such as Look Communications in Ontario and Quebec; SaskTel, the incumbent phone company in Saskatchewan; Yourlink Inc., and; Craig Wireless in Manitoba and BC. But none has announced intentions of deploying 4G WiMAX, or probably has the resources. “Vidéotron might do something ,” Khan ruminates. “But they’re cash strapped. I think the best bet is to focus on the incumbents.” Regina Moldovan, leader of WiMAX product marketing for Ottawa-based Nortel Networks Inc., concedes that LTE will dominate the Canadian market. However, Moldovan notes that, “A lot of big operators are planning to go mainly LTE, but they’re testing and trialing WiMAX as well.” Inukshuk Internet, for example, a joint venture between Bell and Rogers, has been building out a wireless broadband network based on WiMAX technology, but again, it’s not a 4G mobile network – yet. It provides only portable, not mobile services. When will 4G happen? In Canada, likely not soon. Elsewhere, it could be as soon as next year. Verizon has said it could deploy LTE as early as late 2009, more likely 2010. AT&T Mobility anticipates 2010. Motorola, Ericsson and other equipment vendors have announced they will have product in 2009. “It depends on the decisions of very big operators,” Ericsson Canada CTO Dragan Nerandzic says of the timing. “But we believe we can easily accommodate their schedules. 2009 will be a very interesting year for LTE. Then in 2010, we’ll see more substantial deployments by big operators around the world.” Rogers is non-committal. It will keep an eye on Verizon’s experience, Robinson says. One concern is that while the network infrastructure equipment might be available, the ecosystem of other equipment and services won’t be mature. “These things take years,” he says. Big operators like Verizon, now the largest in North America, may be willing to pay the high cost of being a pioneer to maintain their leads, Robinson says. Rogers is not. “Leading with our chin is not something we like to do,” he says. Realistically, 2011 seems a better bet for large-scale deployments by big operators – and none of the Canadian carriers qualifies as big by world standards. Khan puts it even later: 2012. “And are fast followers at best,” he says. “So 2013 for us.” What will it mean? Discussions of the impact of 4G often begin and end with data throughput. In controlled tests of LTE, Ericsson and other equipment vendors have demonstrated jaw-dropping 100-Mbps-plus data speeds in moving vehicles. But as Robinson points out, it’s not as if each user will have a sustained 100-Mbps connection. Few if any mobile devices can chew bits fast enough to handle 100 Mbps of throughput in any case. And no practical application requires it. Maybe unbuffered high-definition video, he suggests facetiously. Rich media Yes, the higher bandwidth and improved QoS – as much the latter as the former – will mean rich media applications work better over wireless networks, with less latency, jitter and crosstalk. That will make them more attractive to consumers and may, as a result, create new or improved business opportunities for content owners and entrepreneurs. Some of those rich media capabilities may be of value to enterprise users too. As we saw in the last issue of Telemanagement, video applications, including conferencing, streaming, surveillance and signage appear to be moving into the enterprise mainstream. Reliable high-bandwidth wireless connectivity could extend any of these applications outside the corporate facility, potentially to great benefit. Ubiquity The real advantage of 4G from the carrier’s perspective, Robinson says, is spectral efficiency – the ability not just to deliver more bits faster but to more users simultaneously. And do it affordably. One implication of 4G standards being IP based, for example, is that operators can now build networks using relatively inexpensive IP routers and switches from mainstream vendors. “What LTE gives us is a lower cost structure to push deeper into the market ,” he says. For Khan, the real impact of 4G is a direct consequence of this: broadband wireless will become ubiquitous. And because it’s IP-based, it will also be possible to integrate previously ‘siloed’ mobile services such as instant messaging, presence, voice, email. Unified communications will be seamlessly extended into the mobile realm. “The big promise of 4G is integrated services,” Khan says. “In the industry, they mostly talk about the access technology – is it LTE or WiMAX? But to the end user, it will be more about consistency, ubiquity and quality of service or quality of experience.” Users will no longer have to think about how best to communicate with someone or over what network, he says. Convergence of fixed and mobile networks – another inevitable consequence of ubiquitous IP connectivity – will mean that devices can determine the best mode of communication and the best network connection. “I think the opportunities will be huge for enterprises in terms of productivity for their employees – the ability to collaborate and be effective in that collaboration,” Khan says. 4G enabled More efficient use of wireless resources by operators and ubiquity of broadband connectivity will also make it feasible to wirelessly connect many more devices, says Ericsson’s Nerandzic. “It means a very large number of devices can connect and interconnect and provide automated information to each other,” he says. WiMAX and LTE will certainly be built first into smartphones, PDAs, laptops and other mobile devices. By using chip technology from Ericsson and others, manufacturers will be able to relatively inexpensively embed 4G capabilities in virtually any device with a microprocessor, including cameras, music players, cars, appliances, switches, and meters. Nerandzic sees 4G as a key enabler of inexpensive, wide area RFID (radio frequency identification) asset tracking and monitoring, with 4G-enabled devices communicating automatically with corporate back office systems. Possible applications include airport security and remote monitoring of off-shore oil rigs, suggests Nortel’s Moldovan. Business models Ubiquitous broadband connectivity and wirelessly enabled devices may be only the beginning of the upheavals 4G brings. Khan cites Google Inc.’s involvement in the recent 700MHz spectrum auction in the US as an indication that radically new ways of doing business could emerge in the mobile realm. Up to now, business models have been one dimensional – end users or their employers paid carriers. But new entrants like Google could use their own capacity or buy at bulk rates from incumbents to offer advertising and location-based services as they do on the wired Internet. And carriers or Google-like players could also potentially monetize intelligence gathered on the network about mobile users’ habits and preferences. They wouldn’t be able to sell personal information, of course, but they could sell demographic and location-based information that could help companies market to mobile users. “That could be huge to carriers,” Khan says. Will the carriers try to keep Google and other interlopers out of the mobile space, or will they, as Sprint appears to be doing, embrace the inevitable – an open access model? Xohm allows users to connect without signing a contract, using any compatible device, and they can use any application, including VoIP, which other mobile operators often block. Deciding your next move So what should enterprises be doing now, if anything, to prepare for the potential upheavals and new opportunities? Vendors and operators naturally counsel companies to “embrace wireless broadband technology as soon as possible,” as Nerandzic puts it. “Embrace it today for the applications that are available today. Because in a couple years, if you’re not engaged, you can be sure your competitors will be.” Nerandzic also says enterprises need to begin wirelessly enabling assets now to better track and monitor them. Not doing so in future, he warns, could be tantamount to corporate irresponsibility. Robinson has a slightly different perspective. Rogers after all is more concerned about selling 3G services than anticipating the indeterminate future. But his advice is no less self-serving. “Use 3G,” he says. “Really, all you can do with 4G at the end of the day is more of the same.” Khan also offers predictable advice, if again from a slightly different perspective. Don’t rush into adopting broadband wireless willy-nilly, he says. First understand users’ needs, and then build a wireless strategy based on that understanding. Also start thinking now about policies and standards around the level of security and integrity required from broadband wireless networks. This may become especially important since ubiquity of affordable broadband may in future make cloud computing – outsourced online applications and data storage – a very compelling proposition. Nortel’s Moldovan strikes another cautionary note. One impact of broadband wireless ubiquity, she says, will be “a greater convergence of the personal and work worlds.” If employees can surf the Web wherever they are and with none of the constraints experienced now on 3G networks, corporate computing devices and connections become perfect delivery mechanisms for Web-based entertainment, including from dodgy sources. “IT professionals should definitely be looking at and be concerned about security of corporate information,” Moldovan says. Our advice? Sit tight. Make decisions on how far – or not – to go in adopting broadband wireless based strictly on current needs and network capabilities. And keep an eye on the evolving market. There could be surprises in store.