Next year is set to see the birth of widespread 4G mobile broadband, so what should enterprises do to prepare themselves for this delivery?
Corporates are already using a multitude of mobile devices and notebooks to allow their users to connect to 3G data services. But 4G promises to deliver the bandwidth headroom to allow more reliable access to heavyweight applications such as videoconferencing, live TV, graphics-rich presentations, video creation and more reliable real-time project team collaboration.
At the moment, most 3G users rely on theoretical top broadband speeds of around 7Mbps (megabits per second). But users are often lucky to experience speeds over 1Mbps or 2Mbps. For reliable access to e-mail and attachments this is not a problem, but when it comes to video it does become a problem.
Various types of 3G technologies are being used in the field to improve this situation. These include high-speed uplink packet access (HSUPA) and high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) to increase the speed of sending and receiving data. Both these technologies are part of the established high-speed packet access (HSPA) family, but they still do not offer the headroom for reliable video applications. This is mainly because the mobile operators have not built widespread mobile networks to support these protocols.
Therefore, if a user has an HSDPA chip in their mobile device, the likelihood is that more often than not they will be getting standard 3G speeds, or even 2.5G (GPRS) speeds.
The idea of 4G is that users can expect speeds of up to 100Mbps (about 15 times faster than existing 3G) on commercial networks, which are set to start appearing in 2010.
The need for these speeds is illustrated by a report from Unwired Insight, entitled "Will 3G Networks Cope?". It shows that the relentless growth of 3G traffic volumes will create a 3G network capacity crisis for some mobile network operators as early as 2010.
The report says 3G traffic volumes are set to increase 20-fold by 2015, driven by many factors, including the increased adoption of traffic-intensive services such as mobile broadband and mobile TV services, the increased proportion of smartphones and reductions in mobile data pricing.
Dr Alastair Brydon, co-author of the report, says, "Pricing of mobile data has changed dramatically since the days that SMS was the dominant service. Mobile broadband pricing has fallen as low as $2 per gigabyte, which is nearly half a million times smaller than the price per gigabyte of an SMS message."
So if 4G is so badly needed by the operators to serve the needs of their customers, what technology is at their disposal to cope? The main two are LTE (Long Term Evolution), backed by the 3GPP standards body, and WiMax, which can be easily integrated into WiFi networks and which has the long-term support of Intel.
In terms of operator LTE take-up, Infonetics Research says in its "LTE infrastructure and subscribers report" that the recession has not dampened LTE investment.
"To date, the gloomy economic environment has not adversely affected service provider LTE plans and commitments. In fact, the number of commercial LTE launches scheduled for 2010 has risen," says Infonetics analyst Stéphane Téral.
According to the Infonetics report, the first major technical deployments of LTE have now started in Japan and the US, driven mainly by NTT DoCoMo and Verizon Wireless. These are expected to deliver commercial services in 2010, says Infonetics.
Based on public announcements made by service providers planning LTE services, the number of LTE service subscribers is expected to exceed 72 million by 2013, Infonetics says.
WiMax got going commercially well ahead of LTE, but it has been a slow climb to build large subscriber numbers, and these are mainly fixed broadband users, not mobile users of notebooks and smartphones.
But according to a report from analyst Maravedis, WiMax subscriber growth in the second quarter of 2009 increased 74% compared with the same quarter in 2008. The number of worldwide WiMax subscribers now stands at around four million.
On LTE, Maravedis says that of 35 mobile operators currently committed, 37% are planning commercial roll-outs in 2010. Another 29% are looking to 2011, and 25% are waiting until 2012. Only 9% have not set a roadmap.
The race for speed
One important difference between WiMax and LTE is that LTE is potentially much faster. Most current WiMax deployments are no faster than 40Mbps, while LTE is expected to come in at around 100Mbps. As a result, firms can expect to pay more for the privilege of using LTE.
O2 is planning to conduct an LTE trial in the UK over the next six months. It will use LTE equipment supplied by Ericsson. Ericsson UK chief technical officer John Cunliffe provides some useful pointers for firms considering LTE and how it will impact on their existing technologies.
"For enterprises to use LTE services, operators in the UK will need to invest in the next-generation infrastructure to support it," he says. "For this reason, operators will initially launch it as a premium service in return for the performance benefits of speed and responsiveness that LTE offers."
Cunliffe points out that despite the potential benefits of LTE services, the speed roadmaps for HSPA are already so impressive that some mobile operators may not rush to offer LTE. Within a few years, HSPA download speeds of up to 80Mbps - compared with the current UK maximum of 7.2Mbps - could be available, which would support most next-generation mobile services for enterprises.
To take advantage of these 3G improvements though, firms would have to incrementally replace existing smartphones, 3G USB dongles or the 3G HSPA chip modules built into their notebooks.
Cunliffe expects to see HSPA speeds increase from 7.2Mbps to 21Mbps on some European mobile networks next year, and then to 80Mbps at a later date. Many firms may therefore prefer to wait for the full arrival of LTE instead of replacing dongles, chipset modules and smartphones twice in a few years to benefit from a theoretical maximum of 80Mbps.
While extensive trials of LTE are planned in the UK next year, there is no guarantee that LTE handsets will be available for firms to buy next year. Cuncliffe expects LTE to be provisionally marketed as a data service via notebook dongles towards the end of 2010, with perhaps LTE-integrated notebooks on the market during 2011.
Cuncliffe says it is estimated there are around 1,500 devices from 170 suppliers on the market equipped with HSDPA chips. If firms are going to continue buying such devices to benefit from ever greater 3G speeds, they should perhaps ask their supplier what upgrade paths are available to replace the chip module with an LTE one once those networks become widespread.
It is a reasonable question considering the module can be changed relatively easily in a notebook, unlike the position of free-standing dongles, which simply have to be replaced.
Phil Skeffington, a consultant at telecoms consultancy Mott MacDonald Schema, says that while WiMax and LTE have been pitched against each other in a predictable and old-fashioned "one or the other" technology battle, they may well complement each other.
He points out WiMax is a technology which has been specifically developed to support data services, although it can also support voice. LTE, on the other hand, is optimised for voice services, having a latency of less than five microseconds. LTE's low latency is also ideal for supporting demanding data applications.
Skeffington says, "It is easy to see how the two technologies may be used in tandem. A combination of WiMax and LTE can provide the whole portfolio of services a business might want, using each technology to provide the services it supports best.
"A nomadic broadband operator may choose WiMax, reasoning that the ready availability of WiMax devices in laptops and ultra-portables removes a significant barrier to entry for its customers while providing the mobility that is increasingly demanded in this market. Alternately, an operator may choose to roll out a mixture of WiMax and LTE."