Electronic Design

Communications> Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G Battle Lines: Peaceful Co-existence Or Creative Destruction?

In today's wireless network conflict zones, unilateral moves by key players are helping win isolated battles but not the wireless war. The wireless data pipe is expanding and becoming more ubiquitous with the commercialization of 3G services and Wi-Fi "hot spots." New services and applications opportunities are presenting many wireless warriors with the potential spoils of war.

Yet there is the possibility of a harmonious coexistence between current competing networks and future networks in the making, where détente-if not full coexistence-could lead to greater rewards.

Trends defining the wireless-network arena include:

  • Imaging is driving the adoption of data services provided by both 2.5G and 3G networks. Camera phones surpassed DVDs as the fastest adopted consumer product.
  • Converged multimedia mobile devices, in the form of wireless PDAs and smartphones, continue to gain more traction.
  • Improvement in architectures will drive key device metrics of size, power dissipation, and performance. One recent announcement is Motorola's Mobile Extreme Convergence (MXC) that will achieve postage-stamp-size converged devices. Major improvements were made in battery life and performance via a unique architectural approach, intelligent hardware acceleration for multimedia, 3D graphics, and security.
  • Given the higher bandwidth wireless data pipe, higher value content is driving the need for security with stamina. Embedded hardware security accelerators ensure a transparent and secure user experience with minimal power consumed to support tamper-resistant products and Digital Rights Management.
  • Display technology is migrating from CSTN to TFT to OLED with improved color depth and resolution.
  • 3G Services, specifically UMTS-FDD, have been commercialized. Other emerging wireless technologies, such as TD-SCDMA and UMTS-TDD, are maturing.
  • Mobile data usage will increase over time due to initiatives and partnerships like Motorola (Linux-Java), Microsoft (.NET), Vodaphone (Live), Nokia (Series 60), Sun (J2ME), and Qualcomm (BREW).

The first live commercial launches of 3G WCDMA in Japan, and UMTS in the U.K., Italy, Austria, and Australia, are providing a view into the mobile world of the future. This ultimately paves the way for mass-market acceptance. Based on licenses and commitments by more than 100 carriers throughout the world, UMTS is expected to become the most popular 3G technology.

A key player in UMTS commercialization is Hutchinson, which launched its Brand "3" starting in the U.K. on March 3, 2003. The services and applications offered by "3" include video telephony, location-based services, m-commerce, multimedia messaging, and games.

Services were launched with handsets from NEC and Motorola. Currently, "3" offers half a dozen handsets, including the A830, A835, and A920 from Motorola based on Motorola Semiconductor Product Sector i.300 chip-set platform. The handsets support video telephony, assisted GPS, Bluetooth personal area network, Java applications, and video, picture, and text messaging.

Within the next year, 3G handsets will support end-to-end quality of service, instant messaging, IP-based multimedia services, High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) up to 10 Mbits/s, and an IP core and radio network that will support voice over a packet switched network.

Wi-Fi and 3G have complementary characteristics. While 3G excels in "anytime/anyplace" connectivity, Wi-Fi is severely range limited. Wi-Fi provides high bandwidths to wireless users (>10 Mbits/s). However, 3G suffers from significantly lower bandwidths, being able to provide only up to a few hundred kilobits per second.

Given the relative strengths of 3G and Wi-Fi, the two technologies will come together in a common framework to provide optimal service to mobile users. Products are already being announced and the market will likely see 3G-to-Wi-Fi roaming agreements within the next year. Lucent already announced a successful handoff of a wireless data call from a Wi-Fi network to a 3G network.

Within a matter of years, the demand for mobile data services will outgrow the 3G's advances. It's commonly accepted that 4G will be a super-enhanced version of 3G. The technology will feature 100-Mbit/s data rates and primarily multimedia services facilitated by various architectural and operational improvements. It completes the transition from circuit switching to packet switching, a much more efficient approach. Other 4G points:

  • 4G systems will be deployed with software-defined radios, allowing the equipment upgrades for new protocols and services via software upgrades. In addition, 4G holds the promise of worldwide roaming using a single handheld device.
  • 4G outlook is embodied in five key elements of fully converged services, ubiquitous mobile access, diverse user devices, autonomous networks, and software dependency.
  • The aim of 3G is to provide multimedia, multirate, mobile communications anytime and anywhere. It's uneconomical to meet this requirement with only cellular mobile radio. 4G will extend the scenario to an IP network that integrates broadcast, cellular, cordless, WLAN/PAN, and fixed wire. The bottom line: 4G is the "network of networks."
  • With 4G, users are in control. They will be able to decide at every occasion (application) and for every environment (mobility, coverage) the right system and even the right terminal, providing personalized service irrespective of the underlying network. As a result, this makes the most efficient use of the available spectrum by directing users to the most appropriate network.

It's important for industry to develop a strong 3G and Wi-Fi offering that meets the consumer's demand for wireless data. In addition, the industry must ensure that expectations are realistic and that services meet and exceed those expectations.

In the wireless network war, champions of the respective networks will develop treaties in the form of roaming agreements, joint ventures, and acquisitions. That will ultimately foster harmonious, symbiotic relationships to meet the needs of growing enterprise and consumer appetite for wireless data.

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