Marketing is essential to the functioning of any successful economy. How can we find the products and services that we need unless someone tells us what’s available? And, OK, I’ll agree that along with these marketing messages, a little hype is naturally to be expected, either because of honest excitement on the part of suppliers and their agents or sometimes, anyway, as the consequence of carefully-crafted nonsense put out by the overly-zealous or even downright-evil hucksters. All too often today, it seems, hype exceeds reality and marketing ultimately fails in its mission, spreading disappointment rather than benefits. Sure, key advances often come with a little (or a lot of) hot air, but, as history has shown, significant and longer-term problems can and will result as a consequence unless this state of affairs is corrected via a dose of reality.
Case in point: 4G, with the promise of WLAN-class throughput, is certain to become all the rage in business and consumer markets, this despite the fact that the formal definition of 4G, the one provided by the ITU, states that a data rate of at least 100 Mbps is required to qualify for this lofty category. I’m pretty sure the ITU knows that that their formal definition of 3G ends at 2 Mbps, leaving what I’ve been calling the 98 Mbps Gap. No matter, said marketers noted above are busy filling this Gap with, you guessed it, well-meaning if misleading nonsense.
Let’s begin with the fact that the marketing definition of 4G includes a broad range of potentially incompatible technologies: HSPA, HSPA+, LTE, and WiMAX are all marketed as 4G, with WiMAX, oddly enough, listed officially as a 3G technology by the ITU. Are customers confused? Yes, a little, but at present only a little because most have not considered going with 4G yet due to high prices (one could, for example, exceed Verizon’s data-volume allotments in the blink of eye), limited geographic availability and coverage, the limited number of subscriber units available, and the above-noted diversity. Which 4G is “best”? Who knows? As I’ll cover below, it’s almost impossible to compare different solutions no matter what we call them.
Regardless, I believe that the 4G forces might take a lesson from past wireless technologies that were over-marketed in order to get the best return on their overall investment. Just to consider a few:
- Bluetooth – I remember the early days of Bluetooth piconets, and clients and others coming to me with wild stories of not needing Wi-Fi because Bluetooth was a-comin’. True, at that point the peak throughput of both technologies was roughly equivalent, at 1-2 Mbps, but clear issues with range and limited configurability were lost on the Bluetooth-everywhere crowd. Carefully-constructed (by me and others) technology roadmaps were ignored. Hey, it was Beta vs. VHS all over again, with the Beta, Wi-Fi, on the run. Cut to the chase: we all know how this one turned out. If it weren’t for the huge installed base of Bluetooth headsets, the Bluetooth radio industry would be in a steep decline or even gone entirely today.
- WiMAX – Remember 70 Mbps at 70 miles? The original goal of WiMAX was, as its complete name so succinctly states, worldwide interoperability for microwave access. The idea, WiMAX being the marketing effort behind the IEEE 802.16 standards work, was to provide interoperable subscriber units for fixed microwave applications. I never understood this: there’s no way I’d ever recommend building a fixed point-to-point or point-to-multipoint wireless facility mixing and matching endpoints. That’s just asking for trouble. And, soon enough, the marketing folks at the WiMAX Forum realized that the fixed market was pretty limited in size and that mobility is where it’s at, and pushed through the 802.16e work making WiMAX mobile. Why this was allowed within the IEEE Standards organization I’ll never know; 802.20 has the same objectives (and, granted, has subsequently died on the vine to a very great degree). But mobility is indeed where it’s at, and ClearWire and their friends at Sprint are today doing everything they can to survive now that their self-proclaimed two-year lead over LTE (for all the good that this imaginary lead really did) has evaporated. Too much hype once again, and LTE is, I believe, going to get at least 80% of the 4G (again, using the marketing term, but perhaps real 4G as well) opportunity, leaving the other 20% (max) to WiMAX and any other contenders. And, hey, weren’t there also wild WiMAX (VHS) vs. Wi-Fi (Beta) arguments made here as well? You bet there were!
- “Super WiFi” – And then we have the White Spaces, which some are calling Super WiFi (note no hyphen in Wi-Fi, and there’s even an upcoming conference with this name!), again despite the fact that the White Spaces have nothing to do with Wi-Fi and are hardly, regardless, super in any way. While I personally think the White Spaces are at the very least promising in the provisioning of wireless services (primarily voice and lower-speed data, but certainly broadband int eh WWAN sense under some circumstances, and regardless primarily in rural areas) and for the pioneering approach to cognitive radio (a key, key direction for our industry overall) taken by the FCC in the latest refinement of the regulations, I don’t see White Spaces radios as being at all competitive with Wi-Fi’s throughput or low cost – they’re going to be primarily a distribution, not access, technology. I do, however, see point-to-point and point-to-multipoint links in the White Spaces bands with Wi-Fi at the endpoints, clearly an appropriate combination of long-range and short-range technologies for real-world solutions. But yet another radio in subscriber units aimed at the masses? Please!
The best way to create a satisfied customer, I learned long ago, is to set their expectations properly. Hype is good in small doses if for no other reason than to add a little humor to the selling process. Over-hyping what technologies can do as a standard practice, however, isn’t the optimal path to success. I don’t think anyone believes published throughput numbers anymore (or, for that matter, the specs of any IT product). Marketers take note: no one is going to get 21, 42, and certainly not 100 Mbps in practice. While the throughput of one solution might be better than another in some cases, network loading, protocol overhead, the geometric relationship between endpoints, fading in its various forms, and even interference can all take their toll – and all from moment to moment. 4G is in fact great for operators because of the increase in overall capacity they offer – but this has nothing to do with Layer-7 throughput realized, especially over time, by the folks that pay the (potentially very high) bills. Consumers slow to move to the next generation of technology don’t help the bottom line in the least. So, just my $.02, but a little reality now and then is a good thing.
As for “real” 4G, the ITU has certified both LTE Advanced and the next generation of WiMAX (Release 2), based on the 802.16m standard, as qualifying implementations for IMT-Advanced, the formal name for real 4G. Don’t look for these at your wireless store anytime soon, but it is nice to know that, along with all that hype and nonsense, these and other honest advances in technology continue to build the vibrancy of the wireless and mobile space – even if so many, sadly, will one day become the next meat for the marketing grinder.