|North America 2008
|3G, 4G or both – is more necessarily better?
|Senior Vice President & CTO
|TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. (TCS)
As Senior Vice President and CTO for TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), Drew Morin is responsible for the technical direction and coordination of TCS’ development activities across business units. Mr Morin has over 25 years of experience in analysis, design, development and implementation of integrated voice/data/video communication systems for a wide variety of applications in both the government and commercial sectors. Prior to joining TCS, Mr Morin worked for BDM Corporation as a Communications Systems Engineer where he designed, developed and implemented next generation systems. Mr. Morin holds a B.S. degree in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and a Master of Science degree in Systems Engineering from George Mason University.
Wireless communications began as a voice-only service. Today the emphasis is upon high-speed broadband wireless for a variety of data-based services ranging from email to mobile TV. The 3G services although a big improvement over 2G are still rather expensive and a bit too slow to give consumers the sort of advanced ‘anywhere’ services consumers really want. 4G networks are not only faster, but being IP-based, provide significant cost savings and the ability to provide true fixed/mobile and voice/data convergence.
Wireless communications began as a way to provide untethered communications. Early in the 1990s, a top tier infrastructure provider commissioned a multi-million dollar market study to evaluate the key offering that would engage the consumer in the wireless revolution. To paraphrase, ‘it’s a phone, stupid’, was essentially the result. The consumer was looking to communicate, by voice, while on the go. Since those early days, we have seen many changes in the capabilities of the networks. No longer is the wireless device merely a tool for voice communications while on the go. Driven by the wildly successful SMS service, the handset has morphed into a very capable, though still limited, data communications device. The typical business consumers now have access to their email wherever they go – thanks to companies such as Research in Motion, Good Technology and Microsoft. As wireless data rates climb, access to the mobile web is becoming somewhat practical, but reminiscent of the early dial-up modem days. Even the devices are becoming more sophisticated to take advantage of the increasing capabilities of the modern, high-speed wireless network. Apple’s iPhone, and others, boast the ability to connect to WiFi networks in addition to the more ubiquitous PCS networks. Thus, the consumer is able to gain access to the highest possible bandwidth available to improve data access. Still, these devices seem hampered by the limitations of the currently deployed networks – or is it the limitations of the current consumer? The challenge for all of this innovation is the ability to make it readily available for consumption. Do the average consumers really know the difference between MMS and MediaNet? Why should they? Consumers benefit today from auto-select technology in the connected world of local area networking. In order to truly benefit from increased bandwidth networks, it is incumbent upon the network providers of tomorrow to make bandwidth easy for the consumer to, well, consume. New architecture – enabling consumption Enter the networks of the future. Dubbed 3G for 3rd Generation, the first candidate enables the device to move beyond being merely a phone. Today’s 3G devices include cameras, PDA functions and Internet-browsing functions. 3G has had some challenges in its initial launch and acceptance. The high cost of the licenses resulted in many of the operators taking on large debts that hampered their ability to build the necessary infrastructure. Coming at roughly the same time as the telecommunications market meltdown in the early 2001-2003 timeframe, this resulted in substantial delays in initial 3G deployments by established operators. From the consumer perspective, 3G handsets were very expensive, had a limited battery life, and there was a limited need for the data services they offered. 4G, or 4th generation, is coming fast on the heels of the deployment of 3G networks. It is an entirely new architecture, but will retain compatibility with legacy systems. 4G delivers much higher bandwidth than 3G making it suitable as a replacement for wireline as well as voice, but data services as well. If there is one area to become truly excited about regarding the advent of 3G and 4G networks, it is the change to the all IP network architecture. 3G network technologies, in particular UMTS, began an evolution within the operator network to bring IP technology into a somewhat meta-stable coexistence with the core SS7 network that has dominated voice communications for decades. The 3G network architecture supported both circuit and packet switched data as depicted below. The installation of a packet switched network core enabled IP communications in 3G. In 4G, the entire network is focused on IP communications – and more specifically IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6). This is a result of an architecture that is focused on high bandwidth data services specifically to address what was seen as the shortcomings of 3G: • Inadequate performance for multi-media and full motion video applications; • Improved interoperability across all networks; • Ability to support both LAN and Wide Area Network (WAN) technologies in a common hybrid solution; and • Converged voice and data, not just dual support. A further benefit of the all-IP network is the potential to hide much more of the network complexity. We have over a decade of commercial consumption of IP networks. They are not a new thing to the average consumer. Google is a verb in the English language at this point. IP networks are a known commodity, and as 4G results in an easier extension of the IP network into the mobile environment, we can expect to see revolutionary changes to how we use mobile devices on these networks. As an example, Location-Based Services (LBS) have been enabled since the invention of enhanced 911 for wireless in 1996. Although an FCC mandate drove the near ubiquitous deployment of this technology across the United States in the early part of this century, the technology was not widely deployed in operator networks for commercial based services until more than a decade later. The ability to have a multi-modal device capable of sending and receiving packet data while in a voice call was one of the fundamental challenges to commercial viability. While 3G enables wireless operators to launch these new services today, 4G will enable LBS to be highly integrated into every aspect of the future mobile device. As opposed to the Navigation and Friend Finder applications of today, location will become tightly and seamlessly integrated into the subscriber experience. A simple Web search will return results not just based on relevance to the words typed and prior searches, but also to the subscriber’s current location. From the operator perspective, advertising-based revenue can be further enhanced by directing ads to consumers that are nearby. The advertiser can ascertain the value of their advertising campaign by tracking consumer reaction to location-based advertising. As to the consumer – they just know that they got what they wanted when and where they wanted it. Who benefits from the new architecture? The big four of the Internet – Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and eBay – are already present in the mobile Internet. The advent of an architecture that more readily supports their core technology and increases their access to their customer base will surely be to their benefit. The unique aspects of application development for a mobile environment have long challenged the development community. They will surely benefit from having an all IP solution that essentially hides the complexity of the underlying networks. The operators, while it might seem that they have the most to lose by opening up their networks, will reap the greatest benefit. The deployment of IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) technology in the operator core has been accelerated by the deployment of 3G networks. The operators are well prepared to manage the packet data transport, session establishment, and applications that are using their networks in both a 3G and 4G environment. This avoids the ‘dumb pipe’ wireline mistake of the 1990s and guarantees their participation in the revenue stream. With the added benefit of fixed/mobile convergence, the operators are in a position to provide a one-stop shop for the consumer. This enviable position is the first, and most valuable, link in the value chain between the consumer and mobile services. What about the consumer? While all of this sounds great, none of it matters unless the consumer can use the service. The emergence of 3G devices such as Apple’s iPhone has had an immediate impact on the device market. It is a phone, a music player, and a Web browser – and the consumer understands this concept. With the roll out of next generation of networks, these devices will need to be designed to enable the consumer to use enhanced features without having to fumble through configuration screens, multiple network selections, or technical jargon. In fact, the all IP nature of 4G will assist here, as noted earlier by enabling the integration of features such as LBS into other applications, without the need for user intervention. Is there a proverbial killer app for 4G? Perhaps it is the promise of fixed mobile convergence. Perhaps it is streaming video while mobile. Perhaps it is video conferencing. One prediction is certain – we will find a way to consume the high bandwidth rates promised by 4G as easily as we are consuming the 3G bandwidth. As the price to the consumer for bandwidth is reduced, the higher consumption will continue to pay for the investment into 5G!