4G Mobile Services Perpetuate 3G's Big Flaws

When 4G is available, there will be the same split in technologies -- likely LTE Advanced and 802.16m WiMax -- and in frequencies, Redman notes. And the patchwork of spectrum based on who successfully bids as it becomes available will continue. Devices will likely continue to be tied to specific carriers, who won't be able to balance usage across each other's networks.

For example, in the United States, Verizon and AT&T have licensed the 700MHz spectrum for LTE, while European carriers will use the 2100MHz spectrum. Sprint plans to offer WiMax service instead, as that technology was available sooner and Sprint wanted to beat its competitors to the "4G" market -- but Redman notes that very few other carriers have WiMax plans, so Sprint's WiMax smartphones may not be usable in most parts of the world. Also, there may not be enough demand for device makers to bother with dual LTE/WiMax models.

4G's Glimmers of Hope
If there's any hope, it's that the 4G networks will be less fragmented than today's 2G and 3G networks, so device makers might be able to create cost-effective and power-efficient global smartphones, at least for LTE Advanced networks.

Redman expects carriers to offer dual 3G/4G smartphones, using the 4G networks for data services and the 3G networks for voice traffic. Doing so could decrease the congestion by essentially having phones use two networks simultaneously. Plus, this approach would let the carriers load-balance across their own 3G and 4G networks, since 3G supports both data and voice traffic, while 4G can support voice if it's converted to VoIP, à la Skype.

And the near-standardization on LTE Advanced, coupled with the smaller number of frequencies involved, might let carriers perform mutual load-balancing across one anothers' networks to help smooth out capacity gaps even more. That would be particularly useful when one carrier has only a small amount of spectrum in certain geographies and thus can't serve all the demand in those specific areas.

Of course, it's in the carriers' interest to lock in customers by tying devices to their networks, so even if technologically the ability to use your desired smartphone on most carrier networks comes to pass, the carriers may not play ball. After all, that would let customers easily change carriers, leading to price wars and unstable revenues. What's good for users may not be good for the carriers -- and the carriers call the shots, at least within the mosaic of spectrum available to them.

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