Is the answer in hand?

The battle for your hands (and wallets) has been heating up in recent days with the latest event being both Telecom and Vodafone making announcements about turning their recent 700Mhz spectrum purchases into the latest front in the opening skirmishes of the 4G wars.

Both developments actually fall into the category of ‘positioning’ Vodafone want to preserve their hard won reputation as the ‘first’ with new services and Telecom (soon to be Spark) careful to add to their ‘best’ position. Its all a little academic as there is still a shortage of 4G devices that can access the full range of 4G frequencies.

Underneath all this something more important is happening and that is the maturing of mobile broadband into a fully capable challenger for the fixed line broadband dollar. 

Beyond a desktop PC, what was the last device you plugged into a wired network cable? I bet it was some form of wireless access point.

WiFi has conquered all our devices, laptops, tablets, phones, printers, TV’s, stereos, security cameras – the list can even stretch to fridges, washing machines and light bulbs. 

Over 20 years ago M.I.T Medialab digital guru Nicholas Negroponte famously postulated what has become know as the ‘Negroponte Switch’ which stated that:

Put simply he suggested that due to accidents of engineering history we had ended with static devices – such as televisions receiving their content via signals travelling over the airways while devices which should have been mobile and personal – such as telephones were receiving their content over static cables. It was his idea that a better use of available communication resource would result if the information (such as phone calls) going through the cables was to go through the air and that going through the air (such as TV programmes) was to be delivered via cables.

And thats pretty much what we’ve been living through, the information part is the likes of YouTube and Netflix and all our wireless devices are the other part. And WiFi and cellular are intimately linked, WiFi is always about half a generation faster in its latest formats but cellular is more ubiquitous but its expensive and we are trained into treating as a scarce resource.

I know that I wait to get back to either the office or my home before I do any heavy lifting such as software updates or watching movies not because 3G or 4G isn’t capable of the download but because of the cost in terms of data usage.

There is now no reason other the cost of mobile data stopping 4G being a faster alternative to todays copper based broadband and it will give the lower end fibre services some serious competition as well.

So what does the 700Mhz 4G war mean for us? several big things, more coverage in more places, potentially including rural NZ (who despite the RBI still desparately want both better broadband and reliable cellular coverage), it will hopefully lead to mobile data plans that are realistically priced and with practical monthly capacity allowances.

As more multi-band 4G devices become available these networks will get put to the test but there is now no doubt that those lucky enough to live in 4G coverage zones are going to be spoiled for choice. Early adopters will see these networks at their uncontended, best but there are many promising techniques which promise to deliver reliable 50mb/s+ performance.

And we’ll see more use of carrier WiFi to help with the heavy lifting and ‘small cells’ will fill in the coverage gaps.

I think this will also define the major use of the UFB,  as being the backhaul that we all build our wireless networks on. Just like todays cellular networks, we all want to be just one wireless hop away from fibre.

This is actually going to take the best part of the next decade to roll out, and it should be finished just in time for the 5G wars – whatever they are going to be.

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