Fourth generation (referred to as 4G or LTE--Long Term Evolution) wireless service expected to be deployed between 2010 and 2012 has the potential to be a game changer for IP-based advanced telecommunications services. The GSM Association (GSMA) predicts the technology will be able to provide 100 Mbps broadband connections, rivaling the throughput of fiber optic wireline services such as Verizon's FiOS, according to a report published this week in mobile news. The big questions of course are whether and when it can.
Blair Levin, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus and a reportedly a rumored Federal Communications Commission nominee in an Obama administration, apparently thinks 4G will alter the playing field in broadband, telling this week's CoBank Communications Industry Executive Forum in Colorado that it has the potential to dramatically expand the cannibalization of wireline-based connections. That means people will not only ditch their voice landlines as they have in droves over the past few years, but also their cable and DSL-based broadband services since 4G's speeds will surpass these and at least approximate the 50Mbs throughput of pure fiber plays offered by Verizon, SureWest Communications and others.
But once again, 4G's broadband capabilities remain speculative and no one yet knows if 4G can really deliver on its potential and whether its costs can support a business model allowing it be be widely offered in the same footprint currently covered by existing 3G wireless services, which in some areas without wireline-based services is the sole terrestrial broadband option. Additionally, 4G must overcome the high latency that can render 3G connections decidedly less than snappy.
Meanwhile, the Sprint and Clearwire predict with expected regulatory approval by year end, their WiMAX rollout will leapfrog 3G and offer a technologically superior alternative with better range. Longer range translates into fewer transmission towers and lower latency. Not only does WiMAX's longer range make it more suitable for less densely populated areas, it also reduces the need for fiber backhaul -- less widely available outside of metro areas -- since there will be fewer transmission sites to feed.
Looking ahead over the next several years, it appears likely the U.S. wireless broadband market will bifurcate with 4G/LTE-based systems run by the big telcos like AT&T and Verizon dominating in metro areas and WiMAX and WiMAX players such as Sprint/Clearwire taking control at the fringes and outside of metro areas.