4G: A Turning Point for Telematics?

4G: A Turning Point for Telematics?

Randy Frank reports on how the transition from 3G to 4G wireless technology could have a major impact on telematicsBy Randy FrankThe transition to 4G will undoubtedly change telematics. But, unlike previous wireless technology transitions, 4G has two different implementations that are battling for supremacy: WiMAX and Longer Term Evolution (LTE). WiMAX technology (IEEE 802.16e), which has its roots in data communication, is about two to three years ahead of LTE in terms of implementation. In contrast, LTE has a voice communication background, with many mobile phone operators supporting it. Even with its late start, though, LTE is touted by many pundits as the eventual winner.

Higher efficiency, bigger bandwidth

For new telematics and infotainment applications in automobiles to reach their full potential, there has to be widespread Internet availability via a cellular network, with a higher bandwidth than today’s 3G networks. Both 4G technologies have about two to three times the efficiency and over five times the peak rates (10 Mbps) of 3G.

The 4G technologies also operate in a range of spectrum bandwidths (such as 5, 10 or 20 MHz) compared to 3G technologies, which are fixed and much narrower. The combination of higher efficiency and increased bandwidth translates into significantly higher throughput for 4G. That means significant improvements for telematics.


“We see LTE as much more of an automotive focus than a WiMAX solution,” says Mark Fitzgerald, senior automotive analyst at market research firm Strategy Analytics. Since LTE grew out of the cell phone industry, which has already proven itself successful in the vehicle environment, the likely success of a cell phone industry-supported standard seems quite high.

In fact, telematics is likely to become one of the key applications in the 4G apps space, according to Adlane Fellah, senior analyst and coauthor of Broadband Services and Applications in the 4G Era: Beyond Existing 3G Applications, a research report published last summer by telecom market research firm Maravedis. Telematics, even more so than other applications, can benefit from increased 4G bandwidth, since the varied signal strength in a moving automobile can rapidly reduce bandwidth, resulting in a less than satisfactory user experience. 4G offers a solution.

Fellah also sees potential for mobile IPTV and machine-to-machine (M2M) apps, such as smart grids, to benefit from 4G technology. The enhanced quality that results from increased bandwidth—as well as the fact that “4G applications will be available seamlessly across various wireless technologies,” according to Fellah, including LTE, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, UWB, and more—are compelling reasons for these and other new apps.

Competing technologies

Users’ choices in the technology battle could be defined by their location. In the U.S., 4G from Sprint, Comcast and Clearwire (all joint venture partners) is based on WiMAX technology. Sprint’s decision in 2006 to pursue WiMAX had a lot to do with timing, since WiMAX was well ahead of LTE at that time and the company wanted a head start in 4G.

Sprint’s 4G service is currently available in Baltimore, Portland, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and 23 other cities. The cost of Sprint’s 4G service is $10 a month on top of the 3G service. Alternatively, users can get a Day Pass for $9.99 if they are traveling in a city with 4G service and have broadband connectivity through Sprint and a 4G modem. UQ Communications in Japan and Yota in Russia also are pursuing WiMAX as their 4G technology.

Verizon supports LTE and is planning broad deployment in 2010 and complete rollout by 2013. Others, including NTT DoCoMo in Japan, France Telecom, Vodafone in the UK, AT&T and T-Mobile, have also indicated their interest in LTE.

As a cell phone industry developed standard, LTE provides a natural upgrade path for existing GSM/HSPA networks, which are common around the world. Last year, TeliaSonera AB announced what it said were the first 4G services based on LTE technology in Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo, Norway. Using a Samsung 4G modem, the company reports download speeds up to 100 Mbps. LTE phones are not currently available.

Mobile phone supplier support

In fact, mobile phone suppliers’ support plays a key role in the acceptance of 4G technologies. When telecom providers upgrade their equipment, they will need the newest and coolest phones and other hardware to attract 4G customers.

Rumors that Verizon and Apple have been testing an LTE iPhone abound. Nokia and Verizon have also developed a 4G phone that will be offered this year. Other companies could help drive the technology. Mercedes tested its myCOMAND Internet-based infotainment system on a 4G LTE network last year. Currently, however, the system is not being offered to customers.

With 2010 set for substantial LTE rollout, the decision as to the 4G winner will be in customers’ hands. Either way, the added efficiency and bandwidth should lead to more customer satisfaction.

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