3G wireless still holds promise

The next generation of 4G wireless may get all the headlines, but advanced 3G technology will likely dominate services for the next few years.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read

There's been a lot of talk in 2009 about the next generation of wireless technology, known as 4G wireless broadband, but the current generation of 3G wireless technology is far from dead.

For many wireless operators, especially those that have built their networks using the global standard GSM, the current 3G wireless technology called HSPA still has some legs left. And while many carriers are planning their 4G networks, hundreds of wireless providers throughout the world are also expected to upgrade existing network infrastructure with the latest versions of the 3G wireless technology to increase speeds and offer new services. And because these network speeds will match current 4G speeds, consumers will likely see no difference in capability.

For this reason, the next few years will likely continue to be all about 3G technology. And 4G services, where they will be available, will likely appeal only to niche audiences.

"The average consumer doesn't care about peak data rates or network acronyms," said Dan Warren, the GSM Association's director of technology. "They just care about the experience. They want to be able to watch YouTube or get live traffic updates on their smartphones. And they don't care whether it's a new network or a current network that is being upgraded."

Mobile operators around the world are seeing a huge growth in the amount of mobile data traffic across their networks. This trend is expected to continue as more consumers buy smartphone and jump onto the mobile Web. By 2014, mobile devices are expected to send and receive more data in one month than in all of 2008.

Three-quarters of this traffic will be attributed to Internet access, while nearly all the rest will be due to music and video streaming, the GSM Association recently said. The new usage patterns will put strains on carrier networks, and operators are planning now to keep up with demand. Already, AT&T, which is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the U.S., is struggling to keep up with the heavy data usage.

While 4G networks will certainly increase network speeds and capacity, these networks and the devices that can be used on these networks will not be built overnight. This is why many carriers who are looking to meet demands today are turning toward advanced 3G upgrades.

T-Mobile USA, the smallest of the major U.S. wireless operators, has adopted this strategy. The company is currently upgrading its existing HSPA network, which launched just last year, to HSPA Plus, the most advanced 3G technology available. It has already started testing the new service in Philadelphia. And the company expects to deploy the lion's share of its upgrade across its entire footprint in 2010.

Meanwhile other operators, such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel are looking toward 4G technologies.

To the 4th power: WiMax vs. LTE
Two technologies dominate the 4G landscape: WiMax and LTE. In the WiMax corner is a company called Clearwire, which is backed by Sprint and Intel, as well as the nation's biggest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The company is currently building its network and has 13 cities up and running with service.

In the LTE corner is the rest of the wireless industry, including at least 50 mobile operators worldwide that have already committed to LTE plans, trials or deployments. The first LTE networks, including one being built by Verizon Wireless here in the U.S., are expected to be rolled out next year. NTT DoComo of Japan and TeliaSonera of Sweden have also committed to deploying LTE next year. That said, major network expansions aren't expected until at least 2011.

One of the problems that 4G carriers will face is that initially their networks will be islands of service. And it will take years for operators to blanket the country with their services. For example, Clearwire has mostly deployed its service in cities, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Verizon will likely do the same thing with its LTE network. And then the networks will spread from there. Verizon expects to launch 25 to 30 with 4G service in 2010.

Another problem 4G operators face is a dearth of new devices. Clearwire's WiMax service has been available for more than a year in some cities, and it still only offers USB modems, PC cards, subscriber modems and WiMax-enabled laptops. So far no one has started selling mobile devices, such as WiMax embedded phones. In fact, in January Nokia, one of the initial eco-system backers of WiMax, canceled its N810 WiMax Edition tablet. More devices aren't likely to be developed until the network is more extensive. Sprint is offering a dual-mode service that allows laptop users to switch between its 3G mobile broadband service and the 4G WiMax service, where it's available. But the service is only available for laptops.

As for LTE, no devices exist today because no LTE network exists. Since most of the world's wireless operators will likely use LTE for their next-generation networks, it's a fair bet that there will eventually be a plethora of LTE devices. And carriers, such as Verizon, will likely embed dual-mode chips that work with 3G networks, too. But given the fact that new wireless technology first shows up in laptops and then moves to phones, it's unlikely that consumers will see any LTE-enabled mobile devices for at least another 18 months to two years. And after that, it could take many more months to fill the pipeline.

Meanwhile, there are already 1,600 HSPA-enabled devices on the market, including smartphones, Netbooks, and laptops, according to the GSM Association. There are currently 321 HSPA networks across 120 countries worldwide, and 285 of these networks are commercially live, supporting more than 167.5 million connections.

And while Clearwire reported it added 173,000 new WiMax subscribers in the third quarter of 2009, the GSMA reports that more than 9 million new HSPA connections are added globally every month, with about 1.3 million of these connections coming from the U.S.

The need for speed
Of course, it's true that current 3G technology is considerably slower than 4G networks. Today's 3G technology, whether it is HSPA or EV-DO, offers typical download speeds of between 400 Kbps to 700Kbps. But the latest version of HSPA, called HSPA Plus, offers average download speeds between 4 Mbps and 6 Mbps. This is the same download speed range that Clearwire's WiMax service offers today.

It's difficult to compare these speeds with LTE, since there are no commercial deployments of LTE. But some experts say average speeds for LTE will initially exceed the 4Mbps range. Some people are expecting the service to offer average speeds around 15 Mbps to 20 Mbps.

Because there is little difference between WiMax and HSPA Plus in terms of speed, many operators are opting to invest in upgrading their networks to this technology while they plan for their eventual LTE migration. The GSMA says there are now 56 networks globally deploying HSPA Plus. And 28 of those networks are now live.

T-Mobile USA, as mentioned earlier, is one of them. AT&T initially indicated it was looking into HSPA Plus, but the company has more recently backed away from those claims. Instead, the company has said it is upgrading to a different version of HSPA called HSPA 7.2. AT&T's chief technology officer, John Donovan, said at the CTIA Wireless trade show last month that AT&T will start its LTE upgrade in 2011.

Mark Siegel, a spokesman for the company, said AT&T is keeping its options open.

"We are trying to stay flexible in how we increase 3G speeds as we transition to LTE," he said in an e-mail.

This means that T-Mobile is likely to be the first major U.S. carrier to compete against Clearwire's WiMax service.

T-Mobile has been criticized for entering the 3G market in the U.S. late, but the company has been working aggressively to catch up. At the beginning of 2009, T-Mobile could reach about 100 million people with its 3G wireless service. By the end of the year more 200 million people will have access to its network, according to Neville Ray, senior vice president of engineering operations for T-Mobile.

By contrast, Clearwire's WiMax service currently reaches about 30 million U.S. residents. And the company plans to reach about 120 million by the end of 2010.

As for subscribers, Clearwire said that at the end of the third quarter of 2009 it had about 555,000 subscribers, which includes people who have subscribed to the service via its partners Sprint, Comcast, and Time Warner, which are reselling the service. T-Mobile finished the third quarter with a total of 33.4 million customers.

"We have been rapidly expanding the reach of our network over the past 12 to 18 months," Ray said. "And in 2010 we are looking to jump ahead with a leading 3G experience. The only thing that will come close are data sticks from Clearwire. And their service is limited geographically."

Ray said the HSPA-Plus strategy allows T-Mobile to better compete against AT&T and Verizon, because it allows T-Mobile to stretch its 3G investment while still offering faster and more ubiquitous coverage for consumers.

"We may have been a little late to the 3G dance," Ray added. "But clearly the mobile data explosion is rapidly growing today. And our plan for 2010 will put us in a leading position to handle these demands."

T-Mobile USA hasn't said for certain that it will use LTE when it eventually builds a 4G wireless network. But considering that its parent company in Europe, T-Mobile, has committed to using the technology, it's a safe bet the U.S. affiliate will as well.

Ray said for now it's better for T-Mobile to leverage HSPA's existing device ecosystem. The company is already offering several devices, such as the Motorola Cliq, the HTC myTouch, and the Samsung Behold that are equipped with the faster HSPA 7.2 technology. And he said that T-Mobile expects to have HSPA Plus handsets on the market in 2010.

"Because there are a large number of operators throughout the world upgrading to HSPA Plus, it's already on the device roadmaps," he said. "This means we can bring the advanced 3G experience to consumers in mobile devices in 2010. And that is not the case with either LTE or WiMax."

The next generation of wireless may be on its way, but it's a slow road. In the meantime, consumers will likely get more out of faster 3G networks, such as T-Mobile's network than the budding services from Clearwire or Verizon Wireless. It will certainly be a fun horse race to follow.