With an estimated 800 million subscribers signed up for 3G services worldwide, popular new 'smartphones' like the iPhone and BlackBerry and the launch of consumer-focused applications like mobile IPTV are driving further rapid growth that should see the market swell to 1.6 billion users within the next five years.
Around the same time, in fact, that so-called '4G' networks and services are expected to begin to take off, promising even higher bandwidths, a smoother, faster user experience - and as-yet-undreamt-of new applications.
Whether it's WCDMA or CDMA2000 1x EV-DO, today's 3G networks and services are all based on a global ITU framework of standards known as IMT-2000. One of ITU-R's most successful and best-known standardization achievements, IMT-2000 saw ITU successfully broker cross-industry agreement on a common approach to next-generation mobile, deftly avoiding the regional market fragmentation that characterized the launch of 2G services and resulted in a host of competing technologies including GSM, CDMA, D-AMPS and PDC.
With the stakes sky-high for mobile equipment manufacturers, the going wasn't always smooth - indeed, harsh dispute over intellectual property rights between the major manufacturers as well as consensus among experts on the choice of the radio interface technologies could only be headed off through ITU mediation at the very highest level.
Now, as users continue to clamour for more and more bandwidth, that monster standardization effort has resumed anew, with the launch of IMT-Advanced. Work is currently underway within ITU-R Study Group 5 and an open call for candidate technologies for IMT-Advanced systems has recently been launched.
IMT-Advanced systems are expected to more than triple IMT-2000's upper bandwidth limit of around 30 Mbit/s, delivering up to 100 Mbit/s for high mobility applications. Services could be commercially available as early as 2011.
In 1999 ITU approved five radio interfaces for IMT-2000 as a part of the Recommendation ITU-R M.1457. In October 2007, a WiMAX-derived radio interface IMT-2000 OFDMA TDD WMAN based on IEEE 802.16 was approved as the sixth IMT-2000 radio interface, paving the way to deployment of new voice, data, and multimedia services, particularly mobile Internet delivery to both urban and rural markets.
The IMT-Advanced vision
Comprising representatives from leading mobile equipment and software developers, telcos and experts from academia and the public sector, the IMT Working Group is developing a new framework that will deliver best-in-class performance.
Features will include:
Higher data rates, improved spectrum efficiency
Lower latency to support new delay-sensitive applications
Mobility support for pedestrian speeds up to 10 km/h and vehicle speeds up to 500 km/h
Seamless global roaming with other mobile networks and IP networks
Support for larger cell sizes and better cell-edge performance
Provision for the design of low-cost, low-complexity terminals for developing countries
Improved unicast and multicast broadcast services
Reduced overall network complexity.
The new framework will be built around open standards and protocols, supporting applications including broadband Internet, email, FTP, streaming video and audio, IP multicast, location-based services, VPN connections, VoIP, instant messaging and multiplayer gaming.