Waiting for 4G: Is the real thing showing signs of life?

As wireless carriers debate which of them has the best 4G service — despite the fact that, technically, none of them has 4G service — actual 4G speeds might be only a couple of years away.

Telecommunications company Ericsson recently demonstrated in Sweden its version of Long Term Evolution Advanced, which the company said can provide speeds 10 times faster than current LTE networks. Ericsson said the first stages of LTE Advanced will be available in 2013.

A company announcement said the system is based on commercial hardware compliant with Release 10 of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project standard. The test was run on a test frequency provided by the Swedish Post and Telecom Agency and demonstrated “LTE Advanced functionality such as carrier aggregation of 3 x 20 MHz (60 MHz aggregated) over the air in a mobile environment for the first time,” Ericsson said.

The company didn’t mention specific transfer speeds, but the LTE specification provides peak downlink rates of 100 megabits/sec and uplinks of 50 megabits/sec. Increasing those speeds tenfold would put downlinks speeds into the 1 gigabit/sec range, which is what 4G was supposed to be all along.

The International Telecommunication Union defines 4G as a downlink speed of 1 gigabit/sec for stationary or slow moving users and 100 megabits/sec for when devices are traveling at higher speeds, such as on a train.

Current wireless carriers, of course, have nothing like that on their networks, at least in terms of what they provide users, despite repeated claims of 4G. Technically, they are pre-4G, or even 3G and a half. ITU lets carriers advertise LTE and WiMax Advanced — the other 4G technology —as 4G, however, because it’s significantly faster than established 3G technology, which runs at about 14.4 megabits/sec downlink.

So although real 4G doesn’t yet exist, it does appear to be getting closer. Ericsson isn’t the only company working on a 4G network; other companies also have been demonstrating 1 gigabit/sec systems, GigaOm reports. But Ericsson could be the first to name a delivery date, even a rough one, which holds promise.

In the United States, the next real challenge might be finding space in the wireless spectrum — or, at least, the right space — for all this broadband service.

Recent tests in New Mexico of LightSquared’s ground-and-satellite LTE service found that it interfered with the Global Positioning System signals used by first responders on an adjacent band of the wireless radio spectrum.

LightSquared’s proposed nationwide network, a multibillion-dollar effort that would help bring broadband to rural and other underserved areas, operates in the L Band of the spectrum, between 1,525 MHz and 1,559 MHz. GPS and the Global Navigation Satellite System operate between 1,559 MHz and 1,610 MHz. In tests, that proved to be too close.

As a result, plans for the nationwide network, which would help bring broadband to rural and other underserved areas, is on hold. As of this writing, the Federal Communications Commission was awaiting a report from LightSquared on whether it should be allowed to build it.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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