On the horizon beyond 3G lie a cluster of other wireless technologies, all promising on-the-go broadband solutions. The potential for these technologies is enormous, in particular they have the power to make major strides toward providing much-needed ICT access in remote or rural areas, and in developing markets. But how far are they to achieving their full potential? And what kind of obstacles need to be overcome first?
First Came 3G
The mass-hype which accompanied IMT-2000 (3G), when the technology first appeared, was followed by a slower than expected take-up in most of the world. Notable exceptions to this were the Republic of Korea and Japan, where, thanks respectively to a sound 3G-ready platform and a popular mobile internet i-mode offering, 3G subscriber numbers have seen more rapid growth.
Now the rest of the world has been showing signs of catching up. Between 2004-2006, the number of 3G users has more than doubled, exceeding 260 million at the start of 2006, with 75 economies offering commercial 3G services. Of this total, there were more than 60 million subscribers to mobile broadband services with capacity in excess of 256 kbit/s (e.g. W-CDMA and CDMA 1x EV-DO) and over 200 million other 3G subscribers on lower capacity networks (primarily CDMA 1x). This growth indicates that global 3G user numbers are now firmly on the up.
Growth has been helped by a number of factors, including the development of more desirable content plus aggressive, more targeted pricing strategies. Ultimately, consumers appear to be warming to the more complex types of applications, such as digital audio and video or mobile TV which 3G enables, and are now demanding ever more sophisticated and personalized services. This is acting as a catalyst for 3G uptake.
|Key Wireless Access Technologies: A Snapshot
||IMT-2000 (3G, e.g., W-CDMA, CDMA200 1x, TD-SCDMA), Satellite, WiMax (IEEE 802.16), WiBro
||RLAN/WLAN (e.g., WiFi or IEEE 802.11), Utrawideband)
||Bluetooth, RFID, Zigbee
Needless to say, this is news that operators have long been waiting for. As the rollout of next generation services continues, a number of 3G operators have been making haste to implement network upgrades to be able to offer the higher speed HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) on WCDMA networks, while on CDMA 2000 1x networks, EV-DO and EV-DV (Evolution data optimized and data/voice) are fulfilling a similar function.
As well as enhancements to 3G systems, alternative wireless access technologies are also being developed and deployed in many countries including broadband wireless access systems such as WiMax (IEEE 802.16), ETSI HiperMAN and WiBro.
Trials of WiMax are currently either in the planning stages or already underway in a number of countries across the globe from the UK to the US, Poland, Russia, Columbia and Uganda to name just some. Meanwhile, in the Republic of Korea, development work is being carried out using the WiBro portable Internet technology, which offers a similar range of capabilities to WiMax but with the added ability to support service to moving vehicles.
These types of developments serve to show how increasing numbers of countries and operators are looking ahead to the technologies which will bring them closer to a seamless mobile Internet connectivity, and setting the foundations for the world's wireless future. To help build these foundations, since 2000, some 250 specialists drawn from administrations, manufacturers, network operators and industry/user forums have been actively participating in ITU studies to define the requirements and specifications for systems that will take the world beyond 3G. This next generation of global mobile broadband wireless systems is known as IMT-Advanced.
IMT-Advanced systems will be designed to enable different wireless access technologies to be used alongside and to complement each other, helping achieve a universal, streamlined connectivity, and providing a common and flexible service platform for different services and applications.
As development and roll outs of converged IP-based applications, such as IPTV, continue, so the need for separate wireless platforms to be able to work alongside one another and provide these types of high-end applications to consumers will become increasingly pressing.
Merging a mix of technologies, such as mobile, WLAN and other wireless access systems could help deliver users a richer variety of "always-on" content over a host of different access devices. Although subject to market and regulatory considerations, this is likely to be an area which operators are increasingly keen to tap into in the future. Indeed, work in this field is already underway, with operators in countries such as Japan and the Republic of Korea offering services which combine technologies such as WiFi (wireless fidelity) with CDMA 2000 1x, leveraging the benefits of one technology against others.
Harnessing different types of technology will help take steps towards a truly "always-on" society, one where users will be connected from anywhere, anytime, using a range of delivery devices, underpinned by a common packet-based core network.
There still remains much that needs to be defined and put into practice before IMT- Advanced systems enter the mainstream, and we enter a truly connected world, although experts consider a more widespread deployment likely in around 2015.
Although much may be still to come, broadband wireless technologies have already opened a door to a whole host of fixed and mobile data and telecommunications applications. At present, the reach of these technologies is limited to highly developed, generally urban markets, where they are used or often combined to offer a seamless on-the-go broadband solution.
However another exciting aspect of these broadband technologies lies in their ability to provide long range wireless connectivity-this means that they have the capacity to extend ICTs into previously untapped, remote areas and communities, making them ideal for deployment in the developing world.
Broadband wireless access technologies, particularly over handheld devices -as mobile technologies have already proved a major success in the developing world- have the potential to extend ICTs further than ever before. Such technologies, including terrestrial and satellite systems, could help developing countries introduce services such as telemedicine, tele-education and high-speed Internet access into rural schools, all of which would play a key role in enhancing a region's social and economic development.
Challenges to be Addressed
While broadband wireless access technologies offer a cost-effective solution to extending ICT access in remote areas, a number of questions still need to be resolved before any large-scale deployment can take place, including those of service and cost. If prospective users are required to buy expensive access devices or pay high subscription costs, for example, then the service will stay out of many people's price range and is unlikely to be adopted on a mass-market level. A uniformity of services and applications across different systems, made possible through global standards, will also be critical for end-users, and thus help a larger-scale take up of products and services. This uniformity will also pave the way for a greater ease and efficiency of use and help achieve economies of scale in content development.
The issue of spectrum and how different wireless technologies should coexist alongside one another is also a major concern. The availability of adequate spectrum is critical to support future services. There are a number of priorities that need to be addressed in the selection of additional spectrum including the establishment of worldwide frequency bands to enable universal access, the need for global roaming and economies of scale. Crucially, the sharing and regulatory constraints for bands currently being used by existing services and the increasing spectrum needs of potential new services also need to be taken into account, as do the particular requirements of developing countries and countries with large areas of low population density in order to help support and extend a cost-effective coverage.
In the light of all these spectrum-related concerns, the need for a global harmonization of spectrum is ever more critical, and is something which ITU strongly supports. The topical issue of spectrum for IMT-Advanced systems will be high on the agenda of the ITU upcoming
World Radiocommunication Conference in 2007.
Alongside its work on standardization and spectrum, ITU is carrying out other crucial work in the field of wireless broadband access technologies from organizing key regional seminars examining the prospects for bringing broadband wireless access to remote or rural areas, to organizing workshops and producing a number of key publications relating to the area of wireless and broadband development.
The Way Ahead
A widespread adoption of broadband wireless technologies is still a way off and many key questions need to be tackled before this can become a reality. Nevertheless a failure early on to seize upon a technology that could become the universally accepted standard in the future could end up costing operators dearly in the longer term.
Initially the reach of wireless broadband technologies is likely to remain firmly within the most sophisticated markets, where they will enable the introduction and rollout of ever more streamlined services. Nevertheless it is these technologies that could hold the key to a more widespread ICT growth within the developing world and have the power to harness wireless to enable connectivity for all.