The Business Case for 4G Wireless

Generational advances have their own distinct flavor, and the transition from third-generation wireless, or 3G, to fourth-generation access is no different. In case you haven't noticed the "so-30-seconds-ago" marketing campaigns centered on 4G access, the bottom line is speed.

Actually, the latest advance in wireless network technology promises faster speeds and greater capacity than its predecessor, but 4G is more of an enhancement of 3G functions than a feature upgrade. It has been compared to the difference between watching regular TV and high-definition TV.

Still, there is enough reason for some business professionals, especially if they are more mobile, to adopt 4G now rather than wait for the even greater and more transformative speed upgrades that wireless watchers say are a couple of years away.

In this look at telecommunications, an industry still being transformed by growing smart-phone adoption and new radio spectrum that accommodates such data-hungry devices, we examine what all the 4G fuss is about.



4G whiz

Basically, 4G offers everything one can do on 3G, but at faster data-transfer speeds – five to 10 times faster, according to cell phone companies. So when consumers or business professionals use a smart phone or other device to surf the Web and download files or photos, they will be able to do so up to 10 times faster than before.

According to Andrea Meyer, public relations manager for the Illinois and Wisconsin region for Verizon Wireless, streaming video should work better, with less stuttering, as should multiplayer video games.

"In the more realistic example for businesspeople, where it really makes a fundamental difference is in the speed of the downlink or the uplink," she said. "For those people who rely on downloading files, and transferring files and photos and things of that nature, it is absolutely beneficial."

Since there will be less latency, delays will be minimized, which is what people engaged in real-time collaboration, exchanging information, or updating data will appreciate. "I recently spoke to a customer of ours who is in construction," she explained. "They do general contracting, so a lot of their people are out in the field, and they are able to have effectively mobile offices where they can use a little Wi-Fi unit and have multiple devices like a notebook or a portable printer right in their truck.

"So they can work remotely, and it means they are no longer tethered to their offices. When you have people scattered across a wide geography, you can have better efficiencies and more consistency, especially with respect to somebody in construction, with the types of files, the plans and things that require bigger files than just a Word document. So they rely on the more robust nature of the 4G network to transmit those types of files."

Much will depend on a carrier's network capacity, coverage, and wireless signal strength, but streaming video and multi-media applications are additional examples. Jeff Roznowski, president, Wisconsin Wireless Association, said that if a business consumer simply engages in basic data transfer, 4G would not bring a noticeable improvement over 3G. However, if an entrepreneur relies on multi-media, video or high-definition video, large audio files, complex architectural drawings, and other tools that require more bandwidth, that's where 4G is advantageous.

"If I'm a small business person and doing repairs on someone's home, to quickly send invoices or files or pictures of the jobs I'm doing, and get them back for analysis, those things create a huge amount of data," Roznowski noted. "They might need to send that back and forth quickly. Those are the types of people that could take advantage of today's 4G speeds."

Jim Greer, a senior public relations consultant in strategic communications for AT&T Services, noted that highly mobile business professionals benefit more from the high-speed data spectrum. "Someone who is traveling a lot for business, someone who is traveling internationally, will benefit," he said. "Taking your office with you, whether on tablet or phone or computer, there are options available now that weren't a few years ago."

Creating separation

Tomorrow's 4G speeds could be even faster (see sidebar, below), but there are other ways that business consumers can separate wireless carriers. Service is one way, and the choice will depend on what individual consumers want to do with their phones.

Although differences in service contracts can be very nuanced, one potential differentiator is emerging. Several carriers have announced they are doing away with unlimited data plans, so if a customer uses an increasing amount of data, the carrier could throttle back the speed at which it's offered, Roznowski indicated. All other things being equal, the carriers that maintain an unlimited data plan would conceivably have a competitive advantage.

Price is another differentiator, and Roznowski believes there will be a correlation between the amount of data capacity required and the price that is paid. "As it's gotten more expensive to introduce these technologies and networks, when more [radio] spectrum has to be acquired, it's brought the spectrum back to the point where we need to have pricing better aligned with how the customers are using the service," Roznowski said.

Technology is another differentiator. Roznowski believes that carriers that began with WiMax, which increasingly is viewed as a niche technology, will eventually move the LTE (long-term evolution) platform, which has become the most prevalent 4G technology because it's viewed as more reliable and robust.
Greer believes that LTE is the consensus choice for a 4G technology platform. "All providers know that," he stated. "Most providers will have it in this state."

An adjunct to that is understanding where 4G service has been introduced by various wireless carriers, and evaluating its reliability. Some carriers have been more aggressive with their 4G build out, while others have been more methodical, mindful of the potential for stress on their networks.

The key issues for 4G consumers, Greer said, will include liability questions, coverage where-people-need-it questions, and the ability of the network to handle the number of users accessing it. "The mobile Internet is here," he stated. "It's something business professionals can use. The question will be, as the amount of people and traffic increase, can we make sure there is enough available spectrum to handle it?

"Long term, as a nation, that is something we need to address as more people switch from dedicated wire line service to a more mobile and mobility-based service."

Greer noted that providers have talked about, but not yet committed to, shared-data plans. At the moment, when you purchase a smart phone, consumers pay for a voice plan and a data plan for that phone, but under a shared-data plan, consumers would share data between various devices.

Speed Race

The evolution in wireless communications continues with 4G speeds, but the true potential is yet to come.

Given the hype surrounding "4G" access, consumers are given the impression that it's a gigantic leap over its predecessor technologies, but the initial rollout is really more of an incremental advance in wireless network technology. The more transformative leap in speeds could be just two years away.

4G promises faster speeds than its predecessor, 3G access, but wireless experts say it was the leap from 2G to
3G that is the most significant advance to date. With that in mind, here is a summary of the various advances in wireless technology.

1G: This is how it all began, with the basic analog version of the original wireless technology. There was no data capability, nor was there a great deal of speed or capacity, but it was the necessary first step of introducing the basic analog version of wireless communications.

1G to 2G: This first transformation brought the introduction of digital technology. 2G offered improved capacity, but it still was a voice-centric service. It did not get into data or the Internet, but it provided a digital platform, and provided a lot more system capacity.

2G to 3G: The biggest wireless leap thus far was going from 2G to 3G, and that transition was all about robust data. At this point, the first half of the 2000s, people still were adopting and using the Internet, and so they developed a need for voice and data. "That leap not only brought the introduction of data but the ability to have a higher capacity and speed of data," said Jeff Roznowski, president of the Wisconsin Wireless Association.

3G to 4G: This is primarily about an enhancement in speed and capacity, with the same basic functionality as
3G. The most common broadband measure cited is 10 times the speed of 3G, which is an upgrade but pales in comparison to the 4G that still is to come. "There is actually a couple of different flavors or advancements of 4G, the evolution of 4G," Roznowski said. "The 4G we see today is probably not the true potential for 4G that the International Telecom Union would define for us. In terms of speeds, 4G today relates to anywhere from five to 10 megabit (million bits per second, or Mbps) transmission rates.

"True 4G, which we will probably begin to see a couple of years down the road, is going to take us to perhaps from 100 mbps over to 1 gigabit [1 billion bits] per second. When you get here, the leap is really significant. Then you're talking about instantaneous data. That will be more of a transformational change."

Which begs the question: for business professionals, is it better to wait a couple of years for the greater leap in 4G speeds? Not if you depend on mobility and not if you can get a strong signal. Assuming 4G is offered wherever you tend to roam, the answer is "don't wait."

"For the multi-media users, I think that existing 4G provides a worthwhile move," Roznowski said.

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