Although carriers will never admit that 3G and 2.5G data services are anything less than spectacular, they are still preparing for the next generation.
And wireless providers hope 4G technologies will light a fire under the moribund market for data services on mobile phones.
But coverage is still hit or miss, performance is worse than a land-line modem, and the possibility of connecting wide area wireless to the corporate network remains a major challenge.
"The lack of corporate adoption for wireless data is due to lack of adequate coverage and lack of reasonably priced devices that incorporate data," said Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax.
Sprint's told users at its conferencethat it has two releases in the pipeline.
Release C will give CDMA carriers downlink data-rate speeds of 3.1Mbps with uplink remaining at peak 144Kbps, and a threefold capacity improvement, while release D will provide an uplink of 1Mbps peak, 3.1Mbps downlink, and will improve capacity by as much as four times.
Compatible handsets should be available in late 2005.
A number of startups are betting their business plans on their ability to offer an end-to-end, over-the-air wireless IP technology for accessing data as the key to success.
Flarion Technologies, a relatively new startup, has been in talks with Nextel and other carriers to deploy its Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing technology on top of the its current networks.
"4G should be an end-to-end IP network," said Ronny Haraldsvik, senior director of marketing at Flarion. "It is much like Wi-Fi. It doesn't know it is in the air," Haraldsvik said.
But while Wi-Fi range is measured in feet, Flarion's technology rides on cellular signals and has the same range as any mobile tower.
While Nextel executives offer no timeline for next-generation services, end-to-end IP over the air is the goal of all 4G solutions, said Greg Santoro, vice-president of internet and wireless services at Nextel Communications.
Other benefits of 4G include user-determined quality of service. "The ultimate 4G would be full on-demand capability, Wi-Fi to Wan roaming, and have it as a true IP network," Santoro said.
ArrayComm, founded by Marty Cooper, the man credited with inventing the mobile phone while he worked at Motorola, also believes that end-to-end IP over the air is the goal of 4G.
And it appears to be ahead of the 4G promises and hype with a first-phase live deployment of its iBurst technology with Personal Broadband Australia in Sydney, and a trial with Korea Telecom in Seoul.
Cooper believes that the killer app for wireless is IP. "Billions of dollars were spent building the infrastructure for the internet. iBurst is transparent to IP and hooks up directly into the Internet to handle data transparently," Cooper said.
Cooper believes that 4G services, such as ArrayComm's Personal Broadband, will be deployed not by carriers but by application suppliers and application service providers.
Ephraim Schwartz writes for Infoworld