Telcos are saying 4G will help Australia keep up with growing demands for mobile bandwidth. But like cloud, 4G has become a nebulous term, leaving users unsure as to what it actually is. We delve into the mysteries of 4G and investigate how it will help mobile phones keep up with customers' hunger for data.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is the body responsible for deciding what speeds and standards make up a new mobile generation. 1G referred to analog mobile communications during the 1970s, while 2G refers to digital systems developed at the end of the 1980s, such as CDMA or GSM, which are still used by telcos from around 170 countries across the globe today — Optus, Telstra and Vodafone here in Australia.
But after 2G, it started to get complicated. While development on the 3G standard we use today began in 1992, it wasn't until 1999 that the ITU officially declared some developed technologies as meeting the "IMT-2000" 3G standard of offering faster voice and internet services with seamless global roaming. The first 3G networks began being deployed in Asia in 2000 and 2003; Australia got its first taste for 3G with the launch of Hutchison Telecommunications' 3.
The 3G standard was a serious step up from 2G that it became a victim of its own success. Telstra last reported that 70 per cent of its customers are now using 3G.
When the first iPhone arrived in 2008, it brought along with it an enormous increase in demand for data. Australian mobile networks found themselves unprepared for the onslaught as customers used their new phones to bombard networks. Service became patchy and customers complained, with Optus being one of the most criticised at the time, although Vodafone felt the heat last year when its coverage didn't meet demand. While Telstra's Next G network has so far maintained the reputation of being the superior network in Australia, many have said it has begun to struggle under the weight of its 12 million customers, particularly in the CBD areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
In order to cope, Optus has now invested millions upon millions of dollars in upgrading its networks, particularly in high density population areas. Vodafone has invested $1 billion this year alone in upgrading its network after its infamous outages at the end of 2010.
Despite investments, the telcos' troubles aren't over. Globally, mobile broadband traffic is expected to increase from 5 exabytes this year to 35 exabytes by 2014. Yet, short of putting a cell tower on every street, 3G upgrades can only go so far, so finding a new technology that can deliver more data to increasing numbers of customers in crowded metropolises is the only solution.
Therein lies 4G.