November 1, 2012
It's hard to avoid advertisements trumpeting the lightning-fast transfer speeds that 4G networks are bringing to mobile devices. These advances, on the one hand, facilitate the consumption of rich media on cellphones and tablets, with video now streaming across cellular networks the way that simple text messages did a few years ago. On the other hand, 4G is an infrastructure challenge -- but one with a promise: that the speediest networks will soon be used not only to deliver content but also to mine information.
In short, 4G is a space rife with opportunity and complexity, and InformationWeek reached out to several finalists for awards at the 4G World Conference to see how they're adapting to the evolving atmosphere. Steven Shalita, VP of marketing for NetScout, wrote in an email that the explosion of video and rich media content being broadcast over 4G LTE networks means that "assuring the customer experience is the most critical element to increasing revenue and maintaining loyalty." The company's nGenius Service Assurance Solution is designed to accommodate this need by extracting data from network traffic to better assess network health and maintain services, he said. [ Get more information from 4G World: AT&T Plays Consumer Catch-Up. ] Scott Schober, CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems, emphasized the challenges that come not only in maintaining services, but also in collecting measurements to upgrade networks and build out new infrastructure. By sweeping the spectrum, he wrote in an email, Berkeley's demodulation products can pull information from the carrier wave, allowing engineers to locate sources of LTE interference, rogue base stations and even hackers. Schroder also suggested that 4G is still in its infancy, and that it hasn't tapped its full potential. "We all watch TV commercials with all the major carriers touting possession of the fastest 4G LTE network," he wrote, countering that these ads are "a bit optimistic" because deployments have so far been devoted primarily to data. Radisys CTO Manish Singh touched on this data-centricity in an email, in a remark that echoed Shalita's. He said that not only "explosions in mobile video [have put] pressure on operators to better manage their networks," but also that there are opportunities for "these same operators to grow their revenues beyond flat data rate plans." Singh singled out voice over LTE (VoLTE) as a potential next step beyond the current data-focused networks. The ability to simultaneously handle voice and data traffic on the same network could be significant, as it would theoretically allow spectrum dedicated to aging 2G and 3G networks to be re-allocated. Spectrum flexibility would address a major challenge; the resource, as 4G Americas president Chris Pearson emphasized in a 4G World keynote, is too finite to meet demand. Singh said, however, not to expect the VoLTE ramp-up to be complete until at least 2015. Amarisoft CEO Franck Spinelli also addressed the data explosion, but from a somewhat different angle. eNodeB, the hardware that facilitates communication between the network and individual devices, can now be fully software-based, he wrote, noting, "Sure, it's not going to happen overnight, but this is something technically and financially possible." The benefit, he said, is that "everything [would be] pure software, right up to the antenna." This means, among other things, easier maintenance, fewer equipment upgrades to keep up with new wireless generations, network optimization via real-time testing of almost any scenario, voice services that behave more like Internet services, and a general "gathering of the data world and the telecom world." Indeed, as much as 4G allows more elaborate content to be delivered to end users, it also allows more information to be extracted from network traffic for big data uses. Representatives from many of the 4G World awards nominees mentioned this capability in terms of monitoring and securing network quality, but Nihal Mehta, CEO of LocalResponse, described it as a boon for advertisers. In an email, Mehta said 4G "means more signals of 'intent' being generated," and noted that this information could be mined to create ads that address not only the user's specific interests but also his or her contexts. Mehta also noted that ads will become richer thanks to 4G, with a greater focus on video content. In an interview, John Horn, president of RACO Wireless, said that many big data applications, however, are still a few years off. 4G machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, such as those between sensors in the field and an analysis station located elsewhere, will take time, as the cost is currently prohibitively expensive within this space. Still, he said, M2M advances are being made with 2G and 3G space "that were hard to imagine six months ago." He noted, for example, that farms have dramatically decreased the time it takes to hatch chickens by locally monitoring a variety of conditions, using cellular networks to move the information offsite, and then performing analysis to find the optimal way to blend those conditions. Such environments, he explained, aren't conducive to high-speed cables or other physical connections -- they're placed where "there is no infrastructure but there is data." By harnessing cellular networks, the information can be used to refine processes like never before -- and once 4G comes online, the potential could be even greater. "There is no end to creativity once the bandwidth is there at the right price," he said.
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