Getting a little confused, and annoyed by the 4G hype in commercials by cellphone makers and service providers? Wondering what the fuss about 4G really is all about? Here’s a piece I wrote a while back that tries to put it all in practical perspective. I share it here for de-mystifying value ahead of the holiday shopping season.
Picture this, some time in the not distant future you’re walking down the street of a in a foreign city, your cell phone extended in front of you like Sherlock Holmes holding a magnifying glass.
Across the screen there are pointers identifying the landmarks, translations of the signs, ratings of the local restaurants, and a video feed of your friend who’s been here before pointing out where you want to go, and avoid. Welcome to the world of 4G in the not so distant future.
“In the past we talked about going online. It used to be an actual activity,” said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrest Research. “No we won’t go online, we will always be online. With 4G we will have a broadband connection with us, all the time, no matter where we go.”
In October 2010 nearly 250 luminaries from economics, public policy, the private sector and elected office gathered in black-tie attire at London’s Museum of Science. They gathered to honor the recipients of the Economist Magazine’s coveted 2010 Innovation Awards.
Steve Jobs was honored for advancing consumer products; a chemist was lauded for devising a way to recycle billions of pounds of plastic. But it was the last prize, the Reader’s Prize, which focused not on accomplishments, but potential.
The Reader’s Choice Award went to 4G, the next generation of cellular networks, for it’s potential to “change society drastically,” Economist editors said. Futurist Alex Lightman, who first preached the value of 4G in 2002, was asked to accept the award.
“I’m going to time travel to 2020 with all of you and tell me what happened,” Lightman told the audience. “We did it! We connected 6 billion people at 20 bits per second, everywhere in the world. We created a productivity singularity. We enabled complete global connectivity, interoperability and adaptability, so that any one can buy, sell, loan or swap with anyone else… In 2020 everyone is above average compared to the dark ages of 2010.”
What is it about 4G that has created such lofty expectation?
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. The handle 4G refers the fourth generation of wireless service. And just as earlier generations brought with them clashes over technology, 4G again offers dueling standards and a mouthful of acronyms.
Regardless if the winning standard is WiMAX or LTE, the result will be the same. Going forward everything over the airwaves will be data. No more separation between voice and data flowing through the broadband pipe. When everything is treated as data, everything will flow faster. Much faster, with less lag time.
There’s a slew of variables that will determine how fast the data moves for any one use, but speeds of up to 100 Mps are similar to home broadband service or even as fast at typical business Internet connections. By comparison, the best 3G connection can deliver only 2-3 Mps.
No Longer Looking for WiFi
The always-present high sped connection will change a lot of consumers behaviors, like looking for a WiFi hotspot before tapping bandwidth hogging applications.
“Right now there’s a population of people with devices that go in search of WiFi connections to get the most from their experiences,” Golvin said. “That is going to tilt the other way. The experience of being out and about it going to be as good, if not better than being on WiFi.”
Initially people might start thinking of the streaming services they can tap from their mobile phones; movies play smoothly and in high-definition and gamers no longer have lag times that put them at a disadvantage to players on computers or home consoles.
But the reality is far more sweeping. Yes, you’ll be able to watch video, but you can stream it too, in full high-definition. Photos, even big files can be sent directly to a laser printer. In simple terms, your phone becomes as powerful at your PC, according to Keith Willetts, CEO and president of the TeleManagement Forum.
“Apart from a large screen and keyboard (and you could add Bluetooth to those) why would you need a PC when you have a smart phone and all of your information and applications available online anywhere you go?” he asked in a trade publication.
For consumers the new frontier will likely present itself first in some subtle ways, Golvin said. “Instead of settling that bar bet over who played Tony in The Professional by pulling up IMDB (the Internet Movie Database), you’ll tee up the scene on and prove that it was Danny Aiello,” he said.
But streaming video is only the tip of the 4G experience. The real power comes from the lightening fast way connections happen, Golvin said. When you get rid of the latency cell phone users have grown accustomed to, and add the power of cloud computing the potential is tremendous, he said.
“With 4G and cloud computing you can add a very rich layer of Meta data on top of the world around you,” he said. “Just think of whizzing through the country side on a high-speed train, and every where you point your phone you get expert commentary on the world around you.”
And cell phone is just part of the 4G world. In fact 4G will redefine how consumers view their relationship with the device and the network. Phones become portals into a high-speed network, allowing people to become roving hotspots, rather than perpetually in search of a connection.
You Home Is the Network
In addition a whole new generation of devices will be able to connect to the network, enabled by the fact the 4G network speaks the same language as the rest of the Internet. Rather than connecting to the Internet through a home network, many of the devices will instead connect directly to the 4G service.
It flips the typical consumer experience of buying a phone and just taking for granted the network behind it. Instead consumers will sign up for a network plan, then connect their devices, whether that’s a cell phone, IP-television (such as GoogleTV), home security system, smart appliance and even a digital picture frames.
For many consumers, a 4G cell phone will just be the start of the relationship with their carrier. It is likely to extend well into the home, even for many of those who have been broadband holdouts until now. Forrester Research predicts that up to a third of the homes that lack broadband connections today will cut the wire all together and use 4G-based technology to connect their families.
Regardless of the application or device, industry experts say the result will be the same; consumers will drastically increase how much data they use.
20 Movies A Month
Chetan Sharma, a veteran researcher, foresees a 27-fold increase in data usage within three years. In 2009 the average customer was pulling down 150 megabytes. With 4G networks in place by mid-2012 he expects that number to be 4 gigabytes of data per user, per month. For reference a full-length move is 200 megabytes, so 4 gigabytes is the equivalent of 20.5 movies.
So how will consumers pay for all of this speed and bandwidth? That’s the topic of debate throughout the industry. When AT&T abolished the all-you-can-eat data plans it signaled the start of a new era in pricing models, according to researcher Sharma.
Forrester Research identified four likely business models for 4G products and services.
- Subscription-based. These have already started to emerge with apps, but will take off with the ability to deliver a steady stream of data to drive customer experiences. For example, TomTom’s XL 340 Series offers a $9.95 per month service for traffic updates, lowest fuel prices and local merchant search results.
- Content-based. Think about iTunes, and the Amazon Kindle. Customers have an open account and buy data (songs, books, etc.) for immediate delivery.
- Advertising-based. Just as Internet service providers experimented with ad-funded programs, European vendors experimented with offering free voice and text service in exchange for selling the customer data to advertisers. It hasn’t been successful yet, but that’s not to say it can’t be done.
- Pay-per-use. Day pass options have been a mainstay for Wi-Fi providers for some time. But now it can be used for more than surfing the web. Clearwire already offers Rover, a pre-paid service that lets customers buy session by the day, week or month.
For Golvin the options create an expanding world of rich experiences. He envisions family road trips made much less painful by taking along the console gaming system and Netflix, allowing for an endless library of entertainment options from the car.
“There’s so much more than just video phone calls,” he said. “That was introduced at the 1964 World Fair. This is about letting your child learn violin from an expert hundreds of miles away. But even more interesting is that the instructor is recording your child’s playing and brings it up frame-by-frame to show them what they did right and wrong.
“It’s all about making real something that never was possible before.”