Most of us will be familiar with 3G, which stands for third-generation and in the case of mobile phones means the third-generation of mobile communication standards (typically GSM, EDGE, and UMTS). If for no other reason than Apple's iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS which make use of the 3G networks to enable faster internet access.
Where there's a third generation of something, there's bound to be a fourth on the horizon, and much has been said about 4G communication technology. In particular the prospect of an iPhone 4G that offers much faster internet connection. But it's early days for the technology at the moment, and most people remain largely unfamiliar with the issues going on behind 4G.
We caught up with Lars Johnson, Beceem's Vice President Marketing & Business Development to chat about the evolution of 4G. And discover what Beceem has planned for the chips that sit behind (and in most cases inside) 4G technology.
Beceem is one of those 'behind the scenes' companies that makes the chips that power mobile communication devices. Typically Beceem chips power most of the USB 3G dongles on the market, sold under brand-names such as T-Mobile, Orange, and so on. To date it has shipped over 3 million of its chips.
With 4G on the horizon, it has just introduced the BCS500, which is the only chip to incorporate both Wimax and LTE (Long Term Evolution). These are two competing 4G standards operating in the market.
"I think there's no surprise as to which way the industry is heading" said Lars, "in five years time I predict about 90 per cent of the market will be offering LTE. But for now about 99% of the 4G market is Wimax". Basically, as the market grows it will be the LTE standard that starts to be rolled out.
This prediction is backed up by the recent announcement of US network Verizon, that has begun testing 4G LTE service in the United States with the aim of launching a commercial service in 2010. So we'll probably see 4G on the market later this year, and certainly rolled out to most networks in 2011.
LTE has an advantage over Wimax in that it can be overlaid on top of existing 3G networks, so it's a much easier choice for network providers looking to build upon an existing 3G network. There are technical advantages to Wimax though. "Wimax uses a FDD system that separates download from upload, which helps ensure data quality. LTE uses TDD which integrates download and upload with more space allocated to download".
In terms of speed LTE and Wimax both offer a considerable improvement over current technology, offering theoretical maximum speeds of 100MBPs and 150MBPs respectively. "This is a theoretical maximum" explains Lars, "if you got 150MBPs you'd be the only person on the network so it probably wouldn't be good business for the network provider". However, you can still expect to see considerable improvements. "Where you see 1MBPs on 3G you'll see around 10MBPs on one of the 4G networks".
However, by integrating support for both LTE and Wimax into a single chip Beceem has ensured that consumers and manufacturers can take advantage of both systems. "The advantage of the BCS500 for the consumer is largely to do with roaming. If you are on a LTE network most of the time (under contract) but move into an area with Wimax you can continue to use the device for internet access."
From the manufacturer's standpoint, it enables them to create a device (typically a handset) that can be used on all networks. For the time being the chip is being developed for 4G dongles, but Beceem is talking to handset manufacturer's. Lars Johnson wouldn't confirm any names though.
Plus the chip has support for both WiFi a-n and Bluetooth. Beceem is particularly proud that it is offering seamless LTE, Wimax, and WiFi handoff in its BCS500 chip. "You can move from one to the other without noticing".
Handsets aside, Lars also explained how a prototype for a 4G wireless network point would work. You could purchase a device that turns a 4G signal into a WiFi hotspot. For your own home you could replace your broadband connection with a single 4G contract, using the 4G wireless network point to power WiFi networks. Alternatively you could use it to set up a mobile hotspot to create a temporary wireless network, such as at an event.
The development and rollout of 4G is particularly important in emerging markets (typically these are in the developing world). Lars explains, "in many countries such as African and India there isn't much infrastructure, and in some cases the copper line is of poor quality, so in these countries we don't think they'll install wired infrastructure. instead they'll go straight to 4G technologies and provide wireless internet access".