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December 20, 2010

When is 4G Not 4G? When 3G and Pre-4G are 4G

By Gary Kim
Contributing Editor

The International Telecommunications Union is not immune to silly political gaffes. When it recently defined  “LTE (News - Alert)-Advanced” and “WirelessMAN-Advanced” as the only "official definitions of "fourth-generation" networks, the ITU automatically made networks operated by Sprint, Clearwire (News - Alert), Verizon, MetroPCS and all other operators of WiMAX and Long Term Evolution networks something other than standards-based "4G" networks.

One might say the ITU, in a departure from marketplace realities, had set its own standards policy against the market. That happens, sometimes. But real-world commercial standards sometimes develop despite the official endorsement of self-proclaimed standards bodies. Decades ago, TCP/IP was declared to be "legacy," and was supposed to be replaced by the new "Open Systems (News - Alert) Interconnection" standards, in layers one through four of the model.  

As the world now knows, that was an utter and complete flop. Instead, TCP/IP is the underpinning for layers one through four of the OSI framework, and no successor has developed for those layers. One might point to Apple's (News - Alert) iOS, Microsoft Windows, as well as parts of most other operating systems commonly used in and around the Internet and computing space as marketplace-based standards created by user adoption, not standards body fiat. 

There's a good reason for standards, of course. Global communication networks must interconnect with each other, and standards make that communication easier. Products have to be built that are guaranteed to work on such networks, and standards help there. But there are political and commercial elements to all standards work. In this case, the ITU seems to have stepped twice into a mess of its own making. 

It began by defining all real-world 4G networks out of existence. Now it has confounded the problem by saying that some "3G" networks are "4G," while the formal "pre-4G" networks in existence, or about to be built, also are "4G."

What's the point of a standard when it isn't a standard any longer? In this case, it might mean that the "non-standard" standards will grow organically to the point that the newly-minted "4G" standard simply ceases to be relevant, much as adherence to the supposedly-"legacy" TCP/IP completely killed the shift to new protocols for layers one through four of the data communications protocols. 

If an organization now sells either WiMAX (News - Alert), Long Term Evolution services, or will do so using the only existing equipment and software now available to do so, those organizations will use non-standard 4G infrastructure. Over time, those networks, network elements and software choices will be upgraded. But one might argue it is no longer clear that real-world networks will necessarily develop in the direction the ITU might have wanted. 

Commercial and marketplace-based standards have an internal logic of their own, and can eclipse standards-body definitions to the point that those proposed "standards" never take hold. That now seems possible for 4G. Suppliers go where the profits and market mass are. And now that the ITU has essentially said even some forms of 3G are "4G," and pre-4G is 4G, commercial dynamics will decide what future 4G looks like. 

"As the most advanced technologies currently defined for global wireless mobile broadband communications, IMT-Advanced is considered as “4G,” although it is recognized that this term, while undefined, may also be applied to the forerunners of these technologies, LTE and WiMax, and to other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third-generation systems now deployed," the ITU says in a new statement. 

Of course, earlier standards for "next-generation" networks also have failed, not so much in terms of adoption, but in the sense of marketplace failure, to a greater or lesser degree. ISDN, though popular elsewhere, never became a huge revenue driver in the United States. Neither, as it turns out, did the broadband ISDN network we know as "ATM." 

Instead, other protocols, including Ethernet and TCP/IP, have emerged as more-important standards, from a revenue standpoint. To a great extent, that is true for consumer electronics standards as well. Sometimes huge battles are waged by proponents of rival technology approaches, in the not-unjustified belief that winning the standards battle means advantage in the markets. It is sound logic. 

But the relatively recently settled battle over the high-definition digital video playback standard, which ratified Blu-ray, has not had commensurate market success, for reasons having little to do with the actual standard. Again, consumers ultimately "pick the winners." And, so far, other alternatives seem to be compelling enough. 

One might say the ITU flip flop is merely embarrassing, and yet another example of standards bodies attempting to define "next generation" networks. It might result in something far more substantial than that. One might suggest that the whole effort now is questionable, in terms of helping shape the development of 4G. 

Once critical mass developments around the real-world 4G and advanced 3G networks, services, revenue elements and devices, evolution will happen based on those factors. That doesn't mean operators will abandon the effort to keep developing more-capable networks. But as we have seen with TCP/IP and other data "standards," the market often decides what a standard is. 

So far, the markets, and end users, have decided the path for next-generation networks, in large part. That could well happen here as well. No matter what the ITU thinks, if voluntary groups such as the GSM decide to evolve LTE in some other direction, the existence of a formal standard will not deter them. 

That is not to fault the well-intentioned hard work of the technologists working on the standard. The point is simply that the global telecommunications industry has yet to prove it can devise a "next-generation" network standard that real-world operators actually embrace obviously, and with great commercial success. Instead, the pattern so far has been that network operators and end users sort of grope towards better solutions as best they can. 

But it is equally true that, up to this point, real-world commercial success has not been driven so much by the standards as by solutions that users believe are workable and useful. 

The issue here is not the well-intentioned effort to create a better framework for advanced network deployment. The issue is what might be termed an inept political handling of the situation that makes a mess of the definitions. That uncertainty will put the focus back on the real-world networks, consumers and revenue, making it ever more likely that the evolution of wireless networks towards faster speeds and capabilities now will occur in ways that use the "standards" only as aspirational goals, not firm "standards."

We have seen this story before. 

Gary Kim is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf

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