In the US, where I’m travelling, it seems every second basketball star, B-list actor and fading comedian has been recruited to push the next big technology – 4G mobile networks. These fourth-generation networks have fanned out across the US in the past year and the accompanying marketing push is relentless. 4G’s benefits include data download speeds up to 10 times as fast as 3G and improved coverage and reception.
Mobile phone plans in the US are very good value. I’ve been using T-Mobile, which offers an unlimited calling, text and data plan for US$50 (NZ$60) a month. That includes unlimited calls to landlines in New Zealand and dozens of other countries. The sooner these sorts of all-you-can-eat mobile plans become the norm in New Zealand the better.
The plan also includes a monthly 500MB 4G data allowance to whet my appetite. It’s a measly amount that my Android smartphone soon gobbles up, after which I’m booted back onto the provider’s slower data network.
Still, the experience is enough to hint at the potential of 4G. The 4G network’s noticeably faster data speed means services that have been offered on mobiles here for years but haven’t really worked – such as streaming Netflix movies while on the bus to work – start to look more realistic.
Connecting to 4G requires a compatible handset, but these are already in good supply, with the likes of Apple’s iPhone 5 and a slew of Android and Windows smartphones and tablets all 4G-ready.
In the next few years, the new mobile technology will revolutionise what we do with our connected gadgets. According to networking company Cisco, in 2017 American mobile subscribers will use 6.2GB of data a month on average, about 10 times the present amount.
Video streamed to mobile devices will account for much of the increased consumption. It will come in the form of high-definition YouTube clips, real-time multiplayer games and, for the mobile workforce, video conferencing.
So when do we get our hands on 4G? The short answer is some time next year. Telecom completed technical trials of 4G in Auckland and Wellington this month and is now bringing customers into the trial to test it in the real world. Vodafone has taken a slightly different tack, developing a sort of turbo-charged 3G service that is being progressively installed around the country. But it ultimately will move to 4G as well.
A couple of factors need to play out before 4G goes national. The required radio spectrum won’t be available until the phase-out of analogue TV is complete later this year. The Government plans to allocate the analogue TV frequencies, which Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees will be keen to get their hands on.
Politics will come into play too, as iwi claim rights to a chunk of the newly freed-up radio spectrum. The Government is in an awkward position because of a precedent set in 2000, when a Waitangi Tribunal ruling led the then Labour Government to allocate 3G spectrum and development money to Maori interests. It will be a hard precedent to ignore.
If iwi are granted a slice of spectrum and use it to boost community-based education and health initiatives, that’s a win for everyone. But last time 3G didn’t deliver promised benefits for Maori; the spectrum sat vacant for years and eventually went to 2degrees.
Internationally, we sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to rolling out 4G services. But with the networks sprouting like weeds in the US, we’ll hear plenty about 4G in the next year, and many of us will probably own a 4G handset long before they can be used in New Zealand to surf the wireless web.