Actually, 4G wireless communications technology has already arrived -- but only if you live or work in Baltimore or Portland, Ore. That's because these cities are the first two places in the U.S. to have service from Clearwire's Clear WiMax wireless network. At the end of 2008, Clearwire took over Xohm's WiMax operation, and it has received investments of $3 billion from tech giants such as Sprint, Intel, Google, and others to build the network. It may sound like an enormous pile of cash, but according to Schoolar, it will take at least $5 billion to create a national WiMax network.
"We're close to operations in dozens of other markets," claims Benjamin Wolff, Clearwire's CEO. "It won't happen overnight, but WiMax will happen." This year should bring service to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. Wolff says Clearwire's goal is to be able to reach where 80 million people live or work by the start of 2010. By the end of 2010, the network could reach 140 million people.
WiMax may be in the lead in 4G communications, but there's a global competitor on the horizon: Long Term Evolution, or LTE, which offers slightly higher theoretical performance. In the United States, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T are behind LTE, and the technology is being championed by most of the world's GSM and GPRS networks.
"LTE is the network of choice for global carriers," explains Schoolar, "because it is an upgrade of their present technology. This makes it easier to deploy." Look for LTE to become mainstream in most metropolitan areas of Europe and Asia next year. While each network has its own plans and rollout schedule, LTE trials and tests are expected to begin in 2009, with commercial operations possibly starting in 2010. TeliaSonera, Scandinavia's largest mobile phone operator, should be the first with LTE operation in Oslo, late this year or early next.
T-Mobile, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom, has already held LTE trials in Germany but hasn't talked about when it intends to introduce the technology to the United States. Verizon will be setting up trials and test markets later this year and plans a rollout by the end of the year or in early 2010. Meanwhile, AT&T plans to stick with its present HSDPA infrastructure until the end of 2010, when it will start building a 4G network.
The eventual choice for consumers will not be an easy one: Either get WiMax when it comes to your area but sacrifice using it when you travel internationally, or wait a year or two -- or more -- for LTE.
They may not get much smaller, but smartphones will get smarter over the next two years.
For example, anyone who's been frustrated by the iPhone's lack of a "real" keyboard will love the phone screens coming over the next couple of years. While the current thumb keyboard won't be an endangered species, look for new phone designs that put the emphasis on touch.