Welcome to ZenUnwired; a blog dedicated to tracking developments in technology and strategy, and to deciphering the impact of these developments on wired and wireless ISP's, device manufacturers, OS and application developers, and most importantly - you.

Friday, March 19, 2010

3G/4G – Cut out the noise

There is a lot of noise in the wireless world about 3G vs. 4G, WiMAX vs. LTE, which carrier is following what strategy, who is in the lead and who is not, etc. This dizzying array of information and “expert” opinions is sure to overwhelm even the most seasoned wireless industry professionals. So for all non industry observers, this must surely be confusing to say the least.

Lets cut out the noise, shall we? From the customers standpoint, there are only three questions that are relevant:
  1. Which technology provides the fastest speed (to my data hungry devices)?
  2. Which technology will be available to me the earliest?
  3. What devices are available?

Speed: From the chart above, you can see the various 3G and 4G technologies available (or are ‘coming soon’) and their relative speeds. You will find a lot of headlines like “TeliaSonera boosts LTE to 100Mbps” scattered all over the internet. But all of this data is meaningless. It’s like saying “you can drive at 200 miles per hour on I-495”. In reality, the speed you will be really driving at is dependent on speed limits, the traffic at that time of the day, the number of lanes on I-495, etc. Likewise, in the chart above, the “average throughputs” are more relevant. It’s akin to saying “on average, you can drive your car at 60 miles per hour”. Bear in mind however, that this average throughput is also dependent on a number of factors, just like in the driving example.

Time to market: Currently, in the US, WiMAX is in the lead. Clearwire has already rolled out its WiMAX service in a bunch of markets and is moving ahead with more rollouts at full steam. Verizon has also been making noises about how it plans on rolling out its LTE service to its top markets by the end of the year. AT&T plans on launching LTE only in 2011, and for now just plans on upgrading its HSDPA network to HSPA+ As a customer, what do you really care about? Do you care about the “technology” you are on, or are you more concerned about ‘having the best devices on a fast network’? Think about it, if a WiMAX iPhone were to come out next month, customers would line up to buy the devices just because it’s a super-fast Apple device.

Devices: For customers, this is where the rubber really meets the road. Did you know that all 4G technologies, will initially offer only USB dongles? There are only a handful of 4G enabled handsets in the world today. In fact, there are recent rumors that Sprint is set to launch the first 4G/WiMAX phone in the US as early as next week (note that 4G/WiMAX USB dongles have been available for a while). But don’t be rushing out to buy your 4G phone yet. If you live in an area where there is no 4G coverage, the phone will automatically default to the 3G network associated with that device. Finally, also note that your devices (yes those fancy phones that set you back by a couple of hundred dollars each) aren’t backward compatible with 4G. In other words, when your town finally gets 4G – you will have to upgrade!

Hope this helps!