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3G feeling the heat

The next generation of wireless technology is already out of the starting block, and it’s looking to pose some stiff competition. Are we ready for 4G? SEAN CASSIDY reports from Comdex in Las Vegas.

If 3G crashes in a forest of new mobile data services technology, will it make a noise if no mobile telecom carriers are utilising it? To put a spin on an old philosophical musing, 3G, or third-generation wireless technology, has been talked about for what seems like eons now, but the long time it has taken to come to fruition could result in an early demise, for its data speeds might already be too slow to handle new media format enhancements and its price point is high, especially for those who have committed significant resources to implementing 2G services. Although many telecoms have initiated, or have been planning, a 3G rollout for some time now, a majority of them were probably more interested in utilizing the new technology primarily for voice traffic.

No need then to explain then why talk of a fourth generation of wireless technology, cleverly known as 4G, has been growing stronger over the past year. By utilising ubiquitous IP networks for over-the-air wireless data access, some companies in the nascent 4G space are dangling the potential of significant cost savings for those looking to upgrade to 3G, which relies heavily on purpose-suited technology.

But a clear definition of what exactly 4G encompasses is still being debated. “We believe that there is significant uncertainty regarding the definition of 4G,”” says Rajeev Chand, senior equity research analyst at Rutberg & Co. “”Some would call 4G ‘mobile broadband services,’ but that was supposedly the definition of 3G. An alternative proposition is that 4G represents the multi-network environment of WWAN, WLAN, etc.””

The 4G market is highly fragmented,”” Chand continues, “”with multitudes of differing technologies, from OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) to CDMA (code division multiple access). We continue to find significant uncertainty regarding the winning standard or protocol in this space.””

CDMA, one of the key technology pieces of the 3G, is a method of multiplexing that enables multiple signals to inhabit a single transmission channel. OFDM, to date primarily a fixture in European digital audio broadcasting, targets the reduction of interference among channels in the data stream while placing less emphasis on cleaning individual channels. Heading into the early stretch, OFDM seems to be winning some converts as a possible standard for delivering 4G services.

New 802s

Assuming 4G is essentially the advent of ‘true’ mobile broadband, as some claim, two new IEEE mobile interfaces, 802.16e and 802.20, have been introduced to assist in its development. The former focuses on bringing mobility to fixed wireless networking stations in the 2 to 6GHz spectrum, the latter targets the 500Mhz to 3.5Ghz range.

More specifically, 802.20 is being led by those developers exploring methods of bypassing CDMA and GSM-based 3G paths, most notably proponents of OFDM. One company that has invested heavily in OFDM is New Jersey-based Flarion Technologies, whose Flash-OFDM airlink technology aims to enable LAN-like broadband communications in a cellular environment by delivering user data transmission rates up to 1.5Mbps.

“”It’s too early to define what 4G is and is not,”” states Ronny Haraldsvik, Flarions’s senior director of marketing. “”However, one thing that vendors and operators agree on is that 4G would entail an all packet-switched airlink to facilitate a wireline-to-wireless all packet-switched network, and enable service-level agreements for enterprise-class communication services.””

Stay tuned, there’s many a decision to be made over the next few years in regards to the future of wireless communications. “”To 3G or not to 3G?”” is a question yet to be definitively answered.

Sean Cassidy is an editor of the Comdex daily newspaper, The Preview. You can contact him on

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