COLUMBIA — The next generation of mobile Internet is faster, cheaper and coming to Columbia as soon as next year.
Fourth-generation wireless, or 4G, is the successor to the pervasive 3G technology that has been in use in cell phones since the early 2000s. 4G promises to bring speed close to that of a home cable or DSL connection to laptops and cell phones anywhere there is a 4G signal.
With all the buzzwords thrown around by cell phone companies, it's easy to get confused. Here's a quick reference guide for terms used when talking about mobile wireless:
4G — Fourth-generation mobile wireless. This is a name for a collection of technologies that provide fast Internet connections to cell phones and mobile devices.
3G — Third-generation mobile wireless. This is the most prevalent type of mobile Internet connection in Columbia right now. It offers slower speeds than 4G.
LTE — Long Term Evolution. This is a 4G technology in use by Verizon that broadcasts in frequencies that used to be occupied by analog, over-the-air TV.
WiMAX — 4G technology used by Sprint and local company Full Stream Wireless.
Modem — A device for accessing the Internet using a computer. A 4G modem connects to the Internet over the cell network and provides that connection to computers or other devices.
Broadband — High-speed Internet access. The primary Internet connection for most houses is either cable or DSL broadband. 4G lets people access similar speeds to home broadband on their phones and laptops.
Sascha Segan, mobile analyst for PCMag.com, said there are three main advantages to 4G. First, increased data rates mean files can download much faster over a 4G connection than a 3G one. This means users can watch a high-resolution video almost instantaneously instead of waiting for them to download, Segan said.
The second advantage is what's known as lower latency. This means the Internet feels more responsive, and video calls with applications like Qik on Android will have less delay between the person on one end speaking and the person on the other hearing it.
The final advantage is greater capacity. This means that 4G wireless can be used by more people at once than 3G.
Segan said the technology could help to supplant traditional, wired methods of connecting to the Internet on computers, replacing them with fast connections to the mobile Internet that consumers could take with them anywhere.
The new technology is, in many cases, cheaper too, allowing more gadgets than ever before to have persistent connections to the Internet. Clear, a wireless company that builds the 4G network for Sprint and sells its own separate service, offers unlimited 4G data in St. Louis for $45 per month, less than the Verizon 3G mobile broadband plan that costs $50 for up to 5 GB of data.
“Because 4G is cheaper to operate than 3G, you’re going to see wireless connections in a lot more devices, and you’ll hopefully see a lot more flexible wireless plans that will let users use bits of 4G when they want to,” Segan said.
There are many types of technology being branded as 4G. Verizon and AT&T will be using Long Term Evolution, or LTE. Sprint is using WiMAX. T-Mobile has a plan to speed up its existing 3G network to the point where it’s almost as fast as LTE and WiMAX, and has begun calling this upgrade 4G.
LTE uses the same frequencies as analog TV, which stopped broadcasting in June 2009. The Federal Communications Commission auctioned off licenses to broadcast on the frequencies previously held by analog TV stations in 2008, and those licenses were bought up by companies like Verizon, CenturyLink and U.S. Cellular in order to broadcast 4G service.
"We auction various licenses, placing each license up for bid," said Matt Nodine, chief of staff of the wireless telecommunications bureau at the FCC. "Based on the bids for certain licenses, some were apparently viewed as more valuable."
4G in Columbia
The company most likely to bring 4G technology to Columbia in 2011 is Full Stream Wireless. Started in 2006, the company has been developing the necessary software to run a WiMAX network in Columbia throughout this year, operations manager Richard Cravens said.
Other companies, such as CenturyLink and U.S. Cellular, own broadcasting rights in Columbia, but have yet to go public with their plans to bring service to consumers.
Full Stream Wireless is building an operations center in Columbia and will lease out space on existing cell phone towers to broadcast 4G Internet in Columbia, Cravens said. The company plans to partner with Tranquility Internet Services and other companies to deliver this service to consumers and businesses, eventually competing against larger telecommunications companies like Sprint and Verizon to deliver 4G service in Columbia.
Cravens said this approach has worked in the past with companies like Socket, a Columbia-based business that operates high-speed wired Internet in Missouri and competes against companies like CenturyLink. He also said that state grants to develop other types of Internet connections in Missouri, such as fiber optic, have largely gone to local companies, suggesting a trend towards local businesses in the telecommunications market.
"We’re a Missouri company, founded by Missourians, run by Missourians, and we think that’ll have real value in the market looking forward," Cravens said. "One of the most exciting things about this, and one of the reasons I got involved personally, is that this technology is going to open up a whole new way of thinking about applications."
WiMAX could be used by everyone from home users looking for an always-on Internet connection they could take with them anywhere, to a company with a fleet of vehicles that could have fast access to customer data while on the road, he said.
“The big thing I think we’re bringing to market is mobility,” he said.
Most national mobile carriers have been targeting cities larger than Columbia to launch their 4G networks. Segan said carriers are starting off in cities that won't overwhelm the network but have enough people living there to use it.
“There’s a sweet spot in terms of population density where you get better payoff for your network build," Segan said. "That density is higher than Columbia and lower than New York City.”
One of the most valuable licenses was the regional block of frequencies that includes Missouri and parts of 10 other states. This block sold for more than $1.6 billion to Verizon Wireless, which launched 4G service in St. Louis on Dec. 5. Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Hill said that its network should extend into its existing 3G coverage area, including Columbia, by no later than 2013.
“Columbia, being a college town, we have a lot of demand for higher end data services,” Hill said. “I would expect that Columbia would go really well.”
Clear owns a license to broadcast in Columbia but currently only has service in Kansas City and St. Louis. Christopher Comes, a director of communication at the company, said that it would be technically feasible to extend service to Columbia, but there are no plans to do so at the moment.
The University of Missouri also owns a license to broadcast a 4G LTE signal in Columbia, according to FCC filings. Terry Robb, IT director of marketing and communications at MU, said while the university has owned broadcasting rights in the past, cellular data is not something they are planning to get involved in. Instead, the University sees it as an investment that may pay off in the future.
“We are investigating the possibilities of leasing our frequencies to a commercial carrier,” Robb said.