From Bluetooth To 4G: What All Those Wireless Terms Really Mean

Companies and consumers considering wireless technology confront a daunting array of terminology and acronyms, not to mention numerous technology choices. We cut through the clutter to give you the straight scoop on what each type of technology can (and can't) do for you.

4G And Wireless Broadband
These wireless wide-area technologies promise soul-stirring connection speeds no matter where you are -- some day. That, in turn, according to the promises of equipment vendors, will open the way to all manner of new mobile technologies such as television and movies on the go.

Wireless Technology Guide

• Short-Range Wireless

    - Bluetooth

    - UWB

    - NFC And ZigBee

• Medium-Range Wireless

    - Wi-Fi

    - Wireless Mesh

• Wide-Area Wireless Networks

    - 3G Service

    - 4G And Wireless Broadband

While nobody doubts these technologies are coming -- and some already are starting to be available -- the Acronym-Annoyance Meter starts going off the charts when talking about 4G and wireless broadband.

In general, these future technologies fall into two categories. Fourth-generation, or 4G, refers to fast wireless data access that will eventually be provided by cellular operators to replace 3G technologies. "Wireless broadband" is fast wireless technology that is starting to be offered by so-called wireless ISPs but that also could be offered by cellular and traditional telecom operators.

The best-known brand of wireless broadband is WiMAX, which is based on the IEEE 802.16 standard and has been championed by Intel, among other industry heavyweights. However, other brands of wireless broadband are also currently available, most notably FLASH-OFDM, which is being championed by Qualcomm, and UMTS TDD, which is from a smaller company called IPWireless.

Unlike its wireless broadband competitors, WiMAX is not yet mobile. Rather, it currently is only a point-to-point technology, like a wireless version of your existing DSL or cable connection. The mobile version of WiMAX could start becoming available in pre-standard form later this year or early next year. Official approval of the mobile WiMAX standard isn't expected, however, until at least the end of this year or early next year. By contrast, FLASH-OFDM and UMTS TDD are mobile technologies; they are also available now but have not been as widely deployed as WiMAX.

Here's the tricky part: 4G and wireless broadband networks may turn out to be the same thing in the end.

Wireless broadband networks currently are based on a technology called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM). While OFDM technology such as WiMAX is starting to be available from wireless ISPs, many believe that some future form of OFDM will be used by the cellular operators for 4G access. In particular, Qualcomm is laying its bets that Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) will be adopted by cellular operators in the future.

Currently, Sprint in the U.S. is furthest down the wireless broadband/4G path. It is evaluating WiMAX, FLASH-OFDM and UMTS TDD and says it will pick one of those technologies this year and start deploying it next year. In its literature, Sprint sometimes refers to this technology as 4G technology, even though wireless ISPs will be offering the same technology. It isn't saying, however, what it will do with this technology once it is deployed.

In other words, the crystal ball is hazy, to say the least, about the future of wireless and mobile access. The good news, according to Kerton, is that we don't have to worry about what's in the future. Nor do we have to worry about all the acronyms and funny names.

"The most important thing about wireless technology isn't the alphabet soup [of acronyms], but how fast it is, how much can I use, what does it cost, and where does it work," Kerton said. "If you ask those questions, it doesn't matter what the acronym is."

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