Last August I looked at the controversy surrounding 4G wireless, beginning with the definition. While it's natural and indeed simple to reduce the essence of a given technology to something easily quantifiable, like throughput, such is ultimately self-defeating in the world of wireless, and perhaps all of IT, because we constantly lie to ourselves about what a given technology can really do. No, 4G isn’t going to give us 100 Mbps at Layer 7. But it will give us an all-IP network, and, just as has been the case with wire and particularly the Internet, that would be nothing short of wonderful.
But, again as I also noted last August, 4G is likely a long ways off for reasons of simple economics. Rather, extensions to 3G are a much more likely path, at least for the next five years or so, to that all-IP nirvana. Want evidence? It's here, and in several forms.
While the voice side of 3G isn’t based on VoIP, the data capabilities of 3G can easily support IP streams with sufficient bandwidth and time-bounded behavior to allow voice traffic over a channel that was originally designed just for asynchronous data. In fact, many people have for some time been using Skype clients, in particular, to merrily chat away on what is supposed to be a data-only network. Namely, the separately-priced data services operated by the cellular carriers.
While I've experienced occasional quality-of-service problems (the same as we find on wire from time to time), overall this has worked well. Plus, it's been a real budget-saver for those of us who travel internationally, as international cellular roaming remains pricey, albeit convenient. In fact, the only showstopper with respect to wide-spread adoption of Skype on handsets has been the carriers own prohibition of using such a service. (Check your contract; if it's more than a few months old, you may find that VoIP is expressly prohibited.)
But that's changing. Most notably, Verizon Wireless is going to allow Skype calls over its data network. The usual Skype rates will apply--free to a few cents a minute, depending upon location--although Verizon will count minutes used on calls to landlines and off-network numbers against one’s monthly plan. Fair enough, but keep in mind that carrier data networks--most notably AT&T's, due to heavy iPhone usage--have been under siege. Many have asked if the necessary capacity to support real-time voice will be there. We'll have to wait and see as the inevitable volume builds, but I'm betting that carrier upgrades in terms of both capacity and coverage will allow VoIP to work quite successfully.
This deal isn’t the only one. Convergence/mobile unified communications leader Agito Networks recently announced a similar capability, in this case also aimed at international travelers trying to save a few bucks on what is otherwise very expensive talk. AT&T has also relented and will allow Skype use over its data network, not just Wi-Fi, as well. I think these moves are first pickles out of the jar, and, as I alluded to above, the first steps toward a 4G future of everything on IP, but, again, without requiring the expensive 4G upgrade in order to get the show on the road. Voice standards for LTE, for example, are still the subject of much debate, and, regardless, 4G is still at least a few years away from critical mass.
It's nice to know, then, that the landline/Internet communications services we so dearly love and depend upon will be available in the mobile world sooner rather than later. We still have a long way to go in terms of providing uniform services over cellular and Wi-Fi, and, on some platforms little details like multitasking to work out. But the progress is there, and the benefits to us mere users are obvious.
Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.
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