Enterprises Not Big on 4G in 2011

 
 
By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2010-12-17
 
 
 
In the wireless predictions column I wrote a few weeks ago, I called 2011 "a testing and appraisal year" for enterprises when it comes to 4G. I posited that coverage would not be pervasive enough on either a national, regional or local basis that enterprise mobile implementers could in confidence promise mobile applications or services that rely on 4G's bandwidth boost or network latency reductions while knowing the majority of their users could not take advantage.

Jason Armitage, senior analyst with the Yankee Group, seems to concur, writing in his 2011 Predictions piece that  "wireless operators have mostly missed the mark when it comes to marketing 4G services for business, and as a result, enterprises will be slow to warm to 4G. Although operators are banking on business applications such as video conferencing, virtualization and machine-to-machine communications that will benefit from the enhanced speeds and latency improvements of 4G networks to drive adoption among corporations, business decision-makers don't see the value-yet."

A different Yankee Group report iterated that many enterprise mobile decision makers didn't understand what 4G wireless technology was and fewer thought the technology was needed to enhance employee productivity. I suspect the former number has grown since that report shipped, however, as we all are coming around to the idea that carriers are using the marketing term "4G" to convey the idea of "faster and better than 3G," rather than trying to adhere to strict ITU definitions.

Armitage thinks consumer adoption will help drive 4G forward in the enterprise by demonstrating productivity gains and use cases when employees bring their own devices, but I continue to think it will be hard to plan around 4G until there is a critical mass of adoption and coverage. And that won't happen in 2011, although it will improve as the year goes on.

That's because carriers aren't exactly making it easy for consumers to get on board with 4G at this point either, due to the limited range of devices currently shipping and the broad range of technologies being marketed as 4G. A quick survey at the time of writing of those U.S. carriers currently offering 4G in at least a few markets shows that T-Mobile offered four 4G devices (two are smartphones), Sprint offers seven devices (two are smartphones), and Verizon offered two devices (neither are smartphones). Meanwhile, AT&T's 4G network has yet to appear anywhere, so there are no devices available to speak of.

The carriers and hardware makers aren't really emphasizing 4G heavily among their new smartphones at this time, as numerous highly touted lines (from the Nexus S for T-Mobile to the Samsung Galaxy family to the array of Windows Phone 7 devices) appear on the market solely with 3G connectivity. However, I expect this state will change rapidly after CES, where numerous 4G device announcements are anticipated.

Armitage also predicts operators will start experimenting with tiered data pricing based on data volume and download speed as carriers continue to move away completely from flat-rate pricing for mobile data. His prediction of experimentation with bit buckets shared across multiple devices caught my eye in particular, as I blogged about my desire for just such a service plan two years ago, wanting a $60 plan that would let me share 25GB among five devices.

Two years later, I still feel good about that price and those numbers, but my inner pessimist thinks operators will be slow to adopt that model. Too much of their public success is based on the number of activations and their profit based on the number of devices that each come with their own, separate data plan. I think at best we can hope that one operator may experiment with such a plan toward the end of the year. If it succeeds, others will follow.

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