Why 4G won't fix your mobile woes

Sprint and others are already hyping '4G' mobile services, but make no mistake, the next generation of mobile will perpetuate 3G's primary flaws

With all the frustration over 3G networks unable to handle the traffic generated by the iPhone, not to mention the slew of Google Android devices now in the works, pinning your hopes on a 4G network is understandable. Sprint, in particular, is playing off these aspirations, advertising 4G networks, while several handset manufacturers are claiming to offer 4G devices as well.

Not only does 4G not exist, but when it does come along several years from now, it won't solve many of the issues that bedevil customers, such as spectrum shortage and lack of device portability across carriers.

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Just what is 4G exactly?
Despite not yet existing, 4G is cropping up increasingly in advertisements. But what carriers such as Sprint mean by the term is the high-speed WiMax wireless data service that it and its partner Clearwire are deploying in dozens of U.S. cities. Other carriers are slapping the 4G label on a 3G-based technology, LTE, an extension of the top-speed HSPA 3G technology that carriers are only now starting to deploy and one that has not yet been fully standardized.

But as Phil Redman, Gartner's longtime mobile analyst, points out, 4G is still being defined by the international telecom standards bodies. For now, it's a meaningless term that carriers slap on to whatever they want you to think is the next big thing.

Redman notes that a main attribute of the 4G definition that's likely to emerge involves its theoretical maximum throughput: 1Gbps when used in a fixed location, such as from a laptop in a café. (Throughput rates in a mobile context, such as from a smartphone while walking, are usually a tenth of the fixed rate.) Of course, real-world throughput will be much lower -- as is always true of wireless technologies -- than the theoretical maximum. Still, the 4G target represents a 10-fold speed improvement over today's top 3G networks.

The term "4G" won't refer to any specific wireless technology (if specific technologies deliver on the specs, they'll count as 4G), but in practice 4G will likely be offered through the LTE Advanced standard now being defined, Redman notes. The 802.16m standard, currently under development as a successor to the current WiMax's 802.16d and 802.16e standards, could also fit the likely 4G requirements, though Redman expects most carriers will go the LTE Advanced route.

We won't see real 4G until between 2015 and 2020, Redman says -- with full deployment to follow a decade later, if history is any guide. In other words, don't hold your breath for 4G anytime soon.

Why 4G won't solve lock-in and spectrum shortages
Even when real 4G exists, it won't cure the two most conspicuous problems that users face today with 3G: spectrum shortages and the inability to use your device of choice with any carrier's network.

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