4G wireless makes progress with WiMax, LTE developments

Suddenly, there's a light at the end of the 4G tunnel. We keep hearing about the next generation of wireless communications but thanks to two developments this week, it's finally starting to feel like we're getting close.

Suddenly, there's a light at the end of the 4G tunnel. We keep hearing about the next generation of wireless communications but thanks to two developments this week, it's finally starting to feel like we're getting close.

First, Clearwire and Cisco announced that Cisco would be the main supplier of infrastructure equipment that will power Clearwire's new WiMax network across the U.S.  Cisco also will introduce a consumer mobile WiMax device later this year.

Then, Verizon Wireless hosted a Webcast for developers to go over the technical specifications of LTE, or Long Term Evolution, the 4G technology that Verizon - as well as AT&T - will use.

The Webcast itself was uneventful for non-developers. I eavesdropped for a bit as the discussions centered around acronym-filled descriptions of antennas and radio frequencies and so on. Still, it was encouraging to hear folks getting into the deep details about the technologies that will boost the mobile broadband speeds in the U.S.

The news comes just in time, too. AT&T found itself on the blogosphere's hot seat yesterday when it confirmed that the new $30 SlingPlayer app for the iPhone was cut off from the 3G data network, hiding behind a clause in the terms of service that prohibits "redirecting a TV signal to a personal computer."

But it's OK to use the app over AT&T's WiFi connections at hotspots such as Starbucks? The blogosphere cried hogwash and quickly pointed to the shortcomings of the network, saying that AT&T is only trying to protect itself from the negative publicity of a network that becomes overloaded. That's what happened in March when AT&T's network pretty much collapsed under the sudden heavy volume of users at the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

In its statement yesterday, AT&T also said that "Slingbox, which would use large amounts of wireless network capacity, could create congestion and potentially prevent other customers from using the network."

The two technologies - Clearwire's WiMax and LTE - aren't that far apart from each other and there’s already been talk that, someday, there could be a convergence where one device would be able to communicate with either network. LTE is considered to be faster but WiMax has a headstart in the race. Earlier this year, Clearwire announced Clear Spot, an accessory that allows any WiFi device (such as an iPhone) to connect on the WiMax network - where it’s available.

There's still a lot of work to be done but the developments are encouraging. In a keynote speech at the CTIA show in Las Vegas in April, Ivan Seidenberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications Inc., said:

LTE is quickly emerging as the global standard. We’re moving fast to get to 4G. Working with Vodafone, we’ve completed the market trials and standards work. We will begin deployment later this year with a few commercially-ready markets and will roll it out to 25 or 30 markets in 2010, with the expectation of faster rollout thereafter.

We'll be holding you to to that.

Also see: Mobile showdown at CTIA: WiMax vs LTE, apps and more