Guest post: 4G mobile broadband

It only seems like yesterday when 3 Australia was launched, heralding the proliferation of third-generation mobile broadband for the unassuming public. It’s now more than five years later and although there are still plenty out there stuck on GSM networks, the higher ups of global telecommunications companies have seen fit to push humanity onto the next step — 4G. Ok, so we might have only just gotten the hang of 3.5G, HSDPA and all the other market jargon that serves only to confuse, but it’s a whole new integer so it has to be good right?

On paper, there are definitely some benefits. 4G Mobile broadband promises theoretical speeds of up to 1Gigabit per second (or 125Megabytes/sec) and sustainable rates at 100Mbit/sec (or 12.5 Megabytes/sec) during transit. These speeds are certainly enticing, given that HSDPA speeds — which are supposed to have reached 42Mbit speeds by now — hardly meet the minimum 3.6Mbit/sec data transmission rate on a good day (at least in Australia). With additional promises for IP packet switching, backward compatibility with 2G and 3G, and spectral efficiency (whatever that means), fourth generation communications could definitely be the next step for mobile broadband

Of course, at this point, all those questions are beginning to crop up — new technology means a new handset, which inevitably has to be replaced with the new fandangled N-Series Nokia because the first iteration of 4G wasn’t up to scratch. Then there’s the slow uptake by Australian telcos, the billions of dollars sunk into trials, the forthcoming attempt to monopolise the technology by Telstra, and the wallet-drying prices and meagre download quotas that accompany the new technology.

Unfortunately, for the most part, we can’t solve all of those problems. The Australian market, small as it is and a “greedy” participant in Kevin Rudd’s dreaded “extreme capitalism,” will seemingly always fail to meet the same comparatively cheap and unrestricted freedoms of neighbouring countries.

On the technological side, there is some hope. Nokia and several other giants hope to avoid the retching cacophony of 3G’s introduction with a proposal entitled Long Term Evolution (LTE) and, as much as that sounds like we’ll be in flying cars before 4G arrives it shows promise. LTE essentially involves the creation of 4G based on existing UMTS or 3G technologies, cutting requisite costs in infrastructure and telco uptake, while also pushing speeds forward. According to initial promises, LTE will also be software upgradeable, simply requiring a firmware or software updated to meet the speeds and other capabilities of the even greater LTE Advanced.

So exactly how far off is it? Like any burgeoning technology there are no definite dates, but the leading mobile brands are releasing some information on the issue. Nokia reckons they’ve already begun to deliver 4G-ready hardware to major telco operators, with LTE capability set to emerge in the second half of next year. It may seem like forever for all you tech junkies out there, but the future is on its way.

Or maybe not. 3G may have gone largely unrivalled during its inception, but 4G isn’t alone in the next-gen race. Making strong headway into several countries already is 4G’s main competitor — WiMAX. With 70Mbit/sec speeds and the same spectral efficiency capability, it definitely seems like a possible candidate, and it has definitely gained some ground with trials and early infrastructure making its way into several countries already. Though it is possible to take the crowning glory from 4G, its most likely uses remain the domain of mobile broadband for notebooks, rather than a handset communications technology.

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James Hutchinson

PC World
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