We’ve been tracking the 4G 'messiah' in the UK for what feels like years now -- promises of streaming and downloading whatever we like, whenever we like, and faster than we could have dreamed. And while the promise is rolling through to reality thanks to finally getting trials from the likes of O2, it’s still a couple of years until we start living the dream of downloading SpiceWorld: The Movie in a minute in the centre of London.
Even when that happens, there’s still one big issue that remains: how on earth are we going to pay for the blasted service?
A quick glance to our US neighbours tells us all we need to know about how much it’s going to cost: these guys are paying around £70 a month for the high-speed services to get a 10GB allowance of data each month, for which we’re used to paying around £15 for the same allowance over 3G -- that’s the sort of levels we were paying Three when it launched at the turn of the millennium, and we don’t want to go through that again.
There’s already a problem for the networks when it comes to supplying data over 3G -- we’ve seen a move away from the 'unlimited data' promises every supplier was offering in the beginning, to a more manageable 750MB limit.
Of course, some are still plugging away with unlimited data, but that’s surely going to be an impossible task to still offer in two years’ time when users are looking to download their monthly allowance in a day.
And then you’ve got the issue of connections. Right now the space in the cities for plugging in 3G networks is getting congested; jump on the roof of many office blocks and pubs and you’ll see a number of scary-looking wires and boxes, all pumping out the precious 3G signal for the businesspeople of this world to make sure they never, ever miss an email with an attachment ever again.
If 4G is really going to be the next level of ‘always connected’ devices, then to make sure everyone can get a slice of the super-speedy signal, there will have to be a big increase in the number of towers around the cities in order to keep up.
It’s likely we’ll have to move to femtocells to help spread the signal around -- for the uninitiated, these are small boxes that can be put in the home or office to broadcast a smaller network to connect into from a wired internet connection, taking the pressure off the big cell towers trying to connect up and manage thousands of people at once.
(The likes of Vodafone already offer these for a 3G system with SureSignal, and while take-up has been good, we’ll need to see a lot more in the future to make sure there’s enough coverage.)
And then there’s the issue of speed; though it’s a positive problem to have. While in happy-happy mobile land 4G networks can top 100Mbps download speeds, in reality it will probably be closer to 15Mbps when everyone is trying to get a piece of the action on the go.
Of course, that’s much faster than the 1.5Mbps speeds you can expect over 3G at the moment, but it might disappoint those thinking that they could download a whole movie in the time it takes to check an email and return to the homescreen.
So there’s a huge amount that needs to be sorted in the next two or three years -- how much will it cost us per month to make sure we’re always connected to a hyper-fast system? Will the networks be able to reconfigure the already-crowded cities to properly take advantage of these stunning speeds? And how hard will it be to help users understand what the difference between 3G and 4G really is?
Fix all these issues though -- and given the interest in the technology from most networks, we’d imagine they will bridge them -- and there’s a new world of connectivity out there. We’re talking cars that can communicate with fridges to alert you when you trundle past the supermarket, or complete media collections available any time you want, wherever you want thanks to cloud storage.
And of course, there’s the issue of the ‘Last Mile"; those poor people that chose the quieter country life but still can’t get anything more than a dial up connection. This will completely change that system, allowing speeds faster than today’s broadband for a whole hamlet.
But please remember: we’re not going to pay through the nose for the privilege, and the speeds better measure up to the promise, otherwise we’ll all be MOST grumpy at the future for not measuring up to our expectations.