A mere two years ago, while exploring 3G and 4G wireless data networking standards for business mobility planning, I recommended that enterprises pay attention to the standards most closely mapped to their mobility objectives as they worked with carriers to develop mobility plans. That's still good advice; but, since then, the standards associated with wireless data delivery have become clearer, while those associated with device operating systems have become murkier.
Standards not only define current network capabilities, they also define the extent to which network capability is expected to improve over time. EV-DO, for example, is widely available and fairly capable, but it is essentially a dead end with respect to its ability to evolve further. On the other hand, High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) -- which includes two mobile telephony protocols, High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) and High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) -- is not nearly as available as EV-DO but is somewhat more capable. HSPA also has a clearly defined evolution path to 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and beyond.
Wireless data standards critical to carriers
Just say yes to evolution. The notion of wireless data networking evolution is critical to network planners, especially to ensure that solutions adopted and integrated into the business infrastructure do not have built-in obsolescence. Two years ago, WiMAX was just beginning to be deployed, and LTE was on the horizon but not yet available. This concern has eased somewhat for enterprise customers as carriers have announced their network deployment plans.
WiMAX is available in several major markets and may be the basis for rural broadband access. While LTE is in the early stages of deployment, Verizon's goal is to have a nominal amount of coverage by the end of 2010. For enterprises thinking about a mobility plan with the goal of delivering business mobility in a couple of years, the number of available choices for enabling it is increasing. In particular, if the mobility objectives for 4G business models can accommodate longer-term solutions, LTE seems to be the way to go.
Voice over wireless data networks -- or not?One open issue that poses a particular concern to business customers is whether operators' wireless data networks will provide voice service to mobile employees. Until the end of 2009, there was no clear answer; LTE had no widely accepted approach to carry voice traffic, and WiMAX was created as a pure data channel. The GSM Alliance has endorsed an approach to voice delivery called VoLTE (Voice over LTE) that depends on IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) signaling within the carrier's network. The possibility of voice over WiMAX is still muddled, but organizations are suggesting alternatives and workable approaches.
Wireless device standards: Who's on first? Another major change in the past two years is that, aside from delivering data, standards associated with the actual wireless device rather than the network have become more important. In particular, the operating system that lives on the mobile device can have a profound impact on how well mobility actually works for a business employee. Several standards are contenders in the smartphone arena: Apple's iPhone, Google's Android OS, Palm's OS and Microsoft's Windows Mobile. Each of these has proponents and is supported by various carriers. Of these, only the Android OS can truly be said to be open, although application program interfaces (APIs) for Windows and Palm are available.
Carrier collaboration required. For carriers, the objective is clear: Deliver wireless solutions that will have the capability, coverage and longevity needed to support enterprise mobility requirements. Understanding business needs and, most importantly, coverage requirements is critical to delivering the appropriate mobility solutions to enable key business processes. Stratecast surveys indicate that enterprises are tired of carriers that function as order-takers and want more collaborative relationships with carriers.
Collaboration includes working with enterprises to map wireless technology to business applications, as well as ensuring that enterprises have smooth evolution paths that take into account carrier plans for network upgrades. A great way to lose an enterprise customer is to announce a new wireless standard that will ultimately strand enterprise investment and force forklift upgrades for everything from wireless devices to business automation.
The bottom line on 4G standards: Standards are becoming a principal consideration for enterprise telecommunications and IT planners. This has largely been driven by the increasingly strategic nature of mobility in the enterprise business model, but it is also just good business practice as enterprises invest more capital in mobility solutions. Operators must appreciate enterprises' concerns and be prepared to assist them in understanding how the network will evolve, which wireless data networking standards will be implemented, and over what time frame they will be deployed.
About the author: Mike Jude is a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan in charge of the consumer communication services practice. He brings 30 years of experience in technology management in manufacturing, wide-area network design, intellectual property management and public policy. Jude holds degrees in electrical engineering and engineering management and a Ph.D. in decision analysis. He is co-author of The Case for Virtual Business Processes: Reduce Costs, Improve Efficiencies and Focus on Your Core Business, Cisco Press, 2003.