Just as more of us are taking advantage of 3G mobile networks, with smartphones, tablets & dongles, so 4G hoves into view. Many of us may not care too much about 4G right now, but it is something that we will be using in the not-too-distant future with the next generation of 'must-have' gadgets.
So what is 4G (also referred to as LTE - Long Term Evolution, one of those technology abbreviations which don't mean very much)? Not surprisingly, it's what happens after 3G, and is essentially the first time mobile networks will have been fully designed for the mobile internet and mobile broadband data rather than voice communication. This will have a significant impact on people's experience of the mobile Internet.
Almost half of internet users in the UK are accessing the internet via mobile already. The impact this usage on today's mobile networks, which have been designed for phone calls and text messages, cannot be understated.
4G networks however, will be faster, and they will be more economic, so operators can offer bigger data bundles, allowing people to watch iPlayer or YouTube or to play OnLive video games on their phones or tablets. This may mean many more people using the mobile network instead of broadband or Wi-Fi.
Mobile data usage is already growing exponentially. It has doubled every year for the last few years and earlier this year Cisco released its forecast that global mobile data traffic will increase 26-fold between 2010 and 2015. It also noted that total global mobile data traffic in 2010 was, astonishingly, three times the size of the entire global Internet in 2000.
To give an example of the scale of this, Derek McManus, CTO of O2 UK said that: "watching a YouTube video on a smartphone uses the same capacity on the network as sending 500,000 text messages simultaneously." 4G networks are being designed to accommodate this demand.
Operators in the US are already rolling out 4G networks, and both Sweden and Germany have service, but what about the UK? Unfortunately, we will be one of the last developed countries to have 4G.
Ofcom recently announced that it would be postponing the 4G spectrum auction, again, so consumers will have to wait until 2013 before their first taste of 4G.
4G also means a change to the way networks are built, and an end to the big phone masts that we currently associate with mobile networks. The science of wireless means the closer you are to the mast, the better the performance that you get. The big towers of existing mobile networks cover kilometres, which is fine for voice, but not for 4G. Instead the new networks will be based on a dense mesh of 'small cells', or '4G access points' very similar to WiFi routers, placed much closer to where they are needed - in homes, in shopping centres, public spaces and offices.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the same technology can also help rural areas. These tend to have poor mobile coverage: indeed, femtocells are used to remedy that. But they often have poor broadband too - the "digital divide" or "not spots" - and as areas with sparse population, predictably providers are reluctant to spend large sums to deliver service. But small cells are cheaper and easier to deploy than traditional basestations - bringing a "bubble" of high-speed wireless to a village to solve the problems of lack of coverage and broadband, in a cost-effective and easy way.
Our CTO, Dr Doug Pulley, conducted an analysis of how many small cells would be needed in the UK to deliver truly world-class high-speed 4G. His research showed that, for example, London would need 70,000 small cells - this would include 2,000 on the Underground, 12,000 in outdoor locations and others in offices and buildings from coffee shops to large shopping centres. Dr Pulley is modelling other cities, and Birmingham and Manchester would require proportionately less. The UK would need 290,000 small cells in total.
That may sound like a lot, but these devices are no bigger than a textbook and can be placed anywhere - on lampposts and other street furniture and inside buildings. So consumers will barely know that the infrastructure is there, unlike the big masts we see today.
In fact, the performance will go up, and the experience of using the mobile Internet will improve dramatically, and the infrastructure will be become much less visible - you could say that 4G will be "the vanishing mobile network". With fewer big, ugly cell towers and the service improving, 4G is a technology we should be excited about. It is just a shame that Britain will get it years later than other countries.
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