For now, 4G devices are pretty much limited to embedded laptops, dongles, USB routers and modem cards. Of course, a variety of handhelds, from MIDs to smartbooks, are being promised, but right now Samsung’s Mondi, recently brought to the United States via Clear’s WiMAX launch in Las Vegas, is one of the few 4G-enabled handheld devices on the market. Smartphones are undoubtedly on their way, along with a host of other 4G solutions that might surprise.
As the only fully-operational next-generation network technology on the market, WiMAX has become the guinea pig, the looking glass, the preview for everything 4G. While LTE continues with trials, WiMAX is up and running with more than 480 deployments worldwide. Almost everyone agrees that LTE will be significantly larger than WiMAX, but WiMAX will be the first to see a bevy of 4G devices.
Devices of the Future
Lars Johnsson, vice president of business development for Beceem, a WiMAX chipset vendor, expects the 4G device market to get red hot sometime next summer. Johnsson should know. Beceem expects that in this quarter alone, it will ship more than 1 million WiMAX chipsets.
“Obviously, there is the laptop space being driven by Intel. As far as custom-built devices that leverage 4G, the answer is summer of 2010. I say that because we are involved in a number of projects ourselves as the chipset supplier where I can’t name the OEM terminal partners in close collaboration with some of the major carriers.”
Johnsson makes a clear distinction between what we’ll see in terms of 4G devices in the emerging market versus those in Europe, Japan and the United States. “In the developed market, you’ll see a lot of high-end smartphones that combine the best of 3G with the speed and power of 4G. Early next year, we’ll be able to be more specific, but we’re currently engaged in a number of partnerships to drive this space,” Johnsson said.
In developed markets, there’s good reason for smartphone OEMs to get involved with WiMAX regardless of where they stand on LTE. “WiMAX is a great early market entry for them as well. Longer term, neither myself nor many other people in the industry doubt that LTE will be significant and bigger over time in the mobile space than WiMAX… But if you enter the 4G space with WiMAX, you can build up some market share and some crucial know-how in how to integrate 4G to make it work.”
When asked whether there might be a market for a WiMAX-enabled feature phone, Johnsson says such a device might provide an ideal solution for developing markets.
“I think a feature phone would be a very good product in an emerging market because it merges the modem function of a USB dongle with the voice capabilities of a handset. So as a user, you can put this thing next to your laptop, supporting broadband data, but you can also use it to make a phone call simultaneously.”
Devices that Play Nice
Of course, you can’t talk about 4G chipsets without someone asking whether there will be a viable market for a dual-mode WiMAX/LTE solution. Allen Nogee, principal analyst for wireless component technology services at In-Stat, is skeptical.
“For a long time, people thought that maybe we could have a GSM/CDMA combination chip. There’s a lot reasons for that but there’s also a lot politics that prevented it. Technologically, you could do it, but it’s the politics between the two. Is Clearwire gonna want to put a device that let’s you use the competition? Probably not.”
Johnsson is slightly more optimistic, but says the market for such a chip wouldn’t evolve for quite some time. “I do foresee a need for a dual-mode WiMAX and LTE chip in the future, but probably not for another three to four years maybe,” Johnsson says, adding that in a WiMAX/LTE world, it will be necessary to bridge the gap to the differing technologies being used, whether it be LTE or WiMAX.
Luis Pineda, vice president of marketing and product management for Qualcomm CDMA technologies division, says the dual-mode chip is always an option but reiterates his company’s focus on LTE. “We’ve been developing our LTE chipsets now for quite some time. Certainly we recognize that WiMAX is a technology that’s been selected by a few carriers. But we don’t see the scale in WiMAX, which is why we’ve put our priority in LTE.”
The Snapdragon chipset, Qualcomm’s bread and butter in the mobile space, remains on a 3G standard and it’s currently at the core of that company’s new class of devices – the “smartbook,” Pineda says Qualcomm has plans to extend the Snapdragon chip to include 4G LTE but did not mention such plans with respect to WiMAX.
Sprint Nextel and its partner company, Clearwire, are the two largest North American carriers with experience running a 4G network. Stephanie Vinge, spokeswoman for Sprint, says that right now, Sprint is focusing on data devices like the company’s line of 4G MiFi hot spots and Cradlepoint routers.
Vinge points out an interesting, if complicated, route to a 4G smartphone. “Say I’ve got my dual-mode router, and I’ve got my U300, and basically that turns my iPhone, my Palm Pre, my BlackBerry, basically anything that’s Wi-Fi enabled, into a 4G device. So today, there’s a 4G iPhone. A lot of people haven’t really grasped that yet,” Vinge says.
But it’s not just consumer devices that are currently being powered by Sprint’s 4G WiMAX service. “The Annapolis Police Department is using our U300 and our CradlePoint routers to monitor street corners, whereas before, the video resolution wasn’t really high enough to get enough information. With 4G, that’s all changing. They’re able to see everything now,” Vinge says, citing higher arrest rates in Annapolis since the service was deployed.
Trial & Error
The 4G world of the future and all those shiny new devices running at super fast speeds is attractive to just about everyone. However, as with any new technology, glitches undoubtedly will come along the way.
“I do not believe there’s a lot of knowledge on what a future 4G world really looks like. Look at when the iPhone was launched on AT&T’s network. It wasn’t really an unknown and all of sudden it brought that network to its knees,” Nogee says.
However, he thinks it’s all under control and that while consumers may suffer some delusions when it comes to a world of endless bandwidth, carriers will learn from their experiences with 3G rollouts.
“There are a lot of unknowns here and it’s just going to be a bit of trial and error going forward. The operators are knowledgeable of that fact. They’re going to roll out things slower rather than faster so as not to get a black eye. They certainly have that luxury. They’ve got all these other networks to support until 4G gets going,” Nogee says.