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4G Wireless: It’s Not Just for Phones Anymore

Verizon says its next wireless network technology could link up cars, home appliances, and more.
April 19, 2010

Verizon is gearing up to launch its next wireless network technology, called Long Term Evolution (LTE), by the end of this year. While Verizon will, of course, still sell phones for this fourth generation (4G) network, it is also pushing to have it built into many other types of devices.

LTE will run on the spectrum formerly used to send television signals, which Verizon licensed from the U.S. government in 2008. The company expects to be able to support about 100 million users by the end of the year. But the saturation of the cell-phone market means that Verizon is also hoping to see the wireless technology used for many other kinds of devices. “We want to get to 500 to 600 percent penetration,” says executive vice president and CTO Richard Lynch. This would mean an average of five or six wireless devices per person.

LTE promises better speed and lower latency than existing networks. Lynch says that users can expect uniform, reliable performance at five to 12 megabits per second–significantly faster than many wired connections today. He expects data to travel round-trip in 25 to 30 milliseconds, a fifth of the latency on the current network.

Lynch envisions people using Verizon’s 4G wireless network for cars, computers, TVs, and other home appliances, as well as regular cell phones. Among other devices, the company has tested wall sockets and power strips that include 4G wireless capabilities. This could enable new forms of home-monitoring and energy management.

One potential problem is that not all of these devices will be under Verizon’s control. When the company purchased the 700-megahertz spectrum, it had to agree to open its network to devices made by other companies. These devices must still be tested and certified to ensure they run safely on the network, but third-party developers will have much more latitude.

Last week, the company broke ground on a new lab in Waltham, MA, where it plans to let third-party developers develop and test devices for the LTE network under simulated real-world conditions.

Another key difference of LTE is that it runs the Internet Protocol (IP). Lynch says that voice will be treated as an application over the new network. (Verizon will use VoIP to deliver voice calls.) An all-IP system will also allow for the use of secure protocols. And getting rid of non-IP components should also make device compatibility easier.

Jeff Kagan, an independent wireless and telecom industry analyst, expects users to embrace new 4G wireless devices. Since Apple created a market for mobile data devices with the iPhone, he says, users have come to expect mobile data connections. The growing success of 3G-enabled e-readers is just one example, he says. When users can get data faster and more reliably, Kagan believes, they’ll want ever-broader classes of devices to be connected to the Internet.

Arogyaswami Paulraj, a Stanford professor who has worked on LTE and a competing 4G technology called WiMax, says it makes sense to focus on data applications, since revenue from wireless data exceeds that for voice in many parts of the world. However, Paulraj thinks that Verizon shouldn’t be too cavalier about its bandwidth needs. A big hit like the iPhone could leave Verizon scrambling, he says, adding that “LTE is a good technology, but challenged by the lack of spectrum.”

Lynch acknowledges that a plethora of new wireless devices could eat up whatever bandwidth is gained by going to 4G. “There will never be enough bandwidth for my vision of what wireless can do,” he says. But he believes that much of the new wireless traffic will come from simple IP-based devices sending relatively small amounts of data over the network–they’ll need to be connected, but they won’t be bandwidth hogs.

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