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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

4G: What it means and when it’s coming

The fab Jenny Culshaw invited me onto 5live Drive last night to talk about 4G. O2 is expanding its trial of faster mobile broadband into London, reigniting interest in the next generation of mobile technology. Here’s a little summary of my thoughts on the subject, assembled in advance.

The term 4G doesn’t mean an awful lot. Is basically defined by a set of speed thresholds: a mobile network is deemed to be 4G if it can deliver 100Mbps to a handset on the move and 1Gbps (1000 Mbps) to one that is stationary or moving slowly. O2 is trialling the first iteration of a technology called LTE, short for Long Term Evolution which doesn’t quite hit these dizzy heights but has the potential to in later versions. So the standards body for telecoms, the ITU, lets them call it 4G.

There are lots of ways to deliver a 4G service — mostly different variations on the same principle concept that involve sending multiple channels of information down the same few small chunks of bandwidth. But it is this bandwidth that is key.

Our airwaves are crowded in the developed world, with limited space for new services once you take out what is already in use for TV, radio, Internet and military applications. As a result in the UK we won’t be getting 4G until some spectrum has been freed up by the completion of the switchover from analogue to digital TV. This will free up the valuable 800Mhz band, ideal for delivering 4G services.

In the interim we may see some services appear on the alternative 2.6GHz band, but this is not so well suited to the application. Services at this frequency will be limited to urban areas as the range is short and the signal is less capable of penetrating buildings.

Of course those are the areas where current 3G networks are under most pressure, so providers such as 3 who are approaching capacity on their networks are very keen to see this spectrum licensed as soon as possible.

Beyond that though we will have to wait until 2013 to see 4G appear in earnest in the UK, with the auction for spectrum now delayed until late 2012. When it does appear, expect instantaneous web page loads and a much richer mobile web experience — more video and interactivity, 3D game streaming and heavy promotion of very rich content (audio/video/game) downloads over the air. And some killer applications that as usual,mhave yet to be invented.

Tom Cheesewright