Uncertainty, promise in next-generation wireless

Three giant corporations will be marching through New Hampshire over the next couple of years, spouting a blizzard of acronyms such as LTE and 4G and WiMax, in an attempt to turn our cell phones into miniature Web-surfing machines.That’s fine for the technically savvy – but as it turns out, even folks who can’t tell a Blackberry from an iPhone from a Droid phone will eventually be affected by this “mobile computing” revolution.“The most important thing is that this is not about phones, not even about computers. It’s really about all devices – many, many other things that could use the omnipresent ability to send data (wirelessly) to connect to the Internet,” said Radim Bartos, an associate professor in the University of New Hampshire Department of Computer Science.As an example, he pointed to the fact that Audi will soon sell a car whose dashboard navigation system uses Google Earth, the Internet-based mapping and satellite-photo system, which isn’t possible unless a fast Internet connection can be grabbed out of the air by antennas.Creating widespread fast-Internet wireless networks is why Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint – the last as part of a consortium called Clearwire – are spending tens of millions of dollars to build towers, install antennas, lay fiberoptic lines to feed those antennas and making lots of software changes throughout New Hampshire.Perhaps this year, but more likely in 2011 and 2012, they’ll start trying to get you to subscribe to their 4G networks – as in “fourth generation,” compared with current 2G and 3G systems.Even without 4G, this is starting to happen.“Forty percent of our customer base already uses a smart phone, with data plans,” said Kate MacKinnon, of AT&T, which is the only service for the iPhone. “Data usage increased 5,000 percent in the last three years – all those folks have five different devices, one in their car, one to read books and the like.”
No specifics yetDetails about 4G are still vague. Neither Verizon, AT&T nor Clearwire will give any specifics about when the networks will go live in New Hampshire, what places will see it first, what features it will have or how much it will cost.That isn’t entirely surprising: Technologies are still being tested and few 4G-capable phones even exist.There are also questions about whether there is enough bandwidth available to carry all the data that’s necessary to power mobile-computing operations.Telecom companies aren’t the only ones excited. Because it’s easier to spread broadband via cell towers than wires strung along every utility pole, the Federal Communications Commission sees 4G as central to its efforts to expand high-speed Internet connections to 90 percent of the country. It’s currently about 65 percent.Folks who sell Internet access over wires are excited, too, although not in a happy way. FairPoint Communications and Comcast are ramping up the speeds they provide via DSL or cable modems to stay ahead of the wireless pack, hoping that being able to download a movie faster will make up for their services’ lack of mobility. (Comcast is hedging its bet; it’s also part of Clearwire.)What this means is that even people who’ll never use a wireless connection could benefit from 4G, because the competition is forcing everybody to get faster.Upgrading networksThe Nashua area got its first whiff of 4G last year when Clearwire tried to put up two WiMax towers on school sites in the city. WiMax is like wi-fi on steroids, and is one of the two major technologies being used for 4G networks. The other is called LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, which is used by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.Clearwire’s towers were rejected by the zoning board after neighbors complained, and the company is now looking to put up a tower in Merrimack.However, nobody is writing off LTE because it’s based on the entrenched global standard called GSM.AT&T uses GSM for its 2G and 3G networks and is touting this as a benefit, because it will have to do relatively little work to transition to 4G.But “relatively little” still means millions of dollars and months of work in New Hampshire alone.Things are more complicated for the region’s dominant cell-phone provider, Verizon Wireless, because it has always used a technology called CDMA that doesn’t lead directly into the 4G LTE system.As a result, Verizon has to build an entirely new network to handle LTE.– DAVID BROOKS/THE TELEGRAPH