This year the mood at 3GSM World Congress was optimistic about 3G technologies and services. Simply looking at the products, strategies and development platforms unveiled at this month's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, it is obvious that 3G services are gaining momentum and the market, especially in the developed world, is on the rise. According to market research firm In-Stat, by mid-2005, the number of 3G subscribers (CDMA2000 1X EV-DO and WCDMA) exceeded 50 million. Although negligible compared to two billion mobile phones worldwide, these numbers are expected to grow for the next few years. From mobile TV to videoconferencing, 3G technologies are enabling a multitude of handset features that were not possible a few years ago. In fact, developers are now exploring technologies to embed 3G capabilities into laptops.

With 3G technologies and services on the rise, developers are now exploring the next generation or the fourth-generation (4G) wireless communications. In reality, visionaries have been setting the stage for migration to the 4G for a few years now. As the proponents begin to chart the path to 4G systems, it is bound to present its own challenges. Remember how long it took for 3G technologies and services to roll out. At one point many pessimists believed that 3G would not happen. But, supporters and backers continued to toil to prove them wrong.

Many analysts believe that the 4G mobile phone technology will roll out sometime in 2010. According to experts, data rates of 100 Mbps for mobile applications and 1 Gbps for nomadic applications should be achievable by the year 2010. It is expected that 4G systems will combine elements of present cellular systems with roaming wireless access systems and personal-area networks (PANs) in a seamless architecture that will be transparent to the users. Efforts are under way to come up with a worldwide common spectrum backed by an open, global standard. To get there, engineers and researchers developing the next-generation mobile-broad-band wireless devices and solutions will require innovative and novel test and measurement instrumentation and equipment. Hence, it is heartening to know that test tools vendors have also joined this fray and are concurrently developing tools to address 4G test challenges.

In an invited talk at last month's MTT Radio & Wireless 2006 symposium in San Diego, Calif., Fawzi Behmann, Freescale Semiconductor's director of strategic marketing, highlighted some of the key challenges of realizing 4G vision. In his talk, Behmann said that 4G is a convergence of mobile communications, computer networking, personal area networking (PAN) and broadcast technologies. In essence, he added, it is a network of networks. Hence, there are many hurdles that must be overcome to realize the 4G vision, stated Behmann. Baseband processors were on top of that list. Today, 300 MIPS-capable processors can handle the 3G processing required. By the time we approach 3.75G, processors with 1000 MIPS capability would be required, noted Behmann. He went on to say that 4G would demand processing power of 10,000 MIPS without acceleration. To integrate Internet access, mobile media, voice/video phone, broadcast and home networking into a single handset would require significant advances in semiconductor process technologies, product development cycles, power management and miniaturization without inflating cost. That means, he continued, the level of integration on a single semiconductor chip will be extremely high with the ability to handle multiple frequencies and standards with seamless mobility. Also, 4G systems are likely to exploit the benefits of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and will be IP packet based, he continued. Thus, more multimode base stations covering smaller areas would also be required to address 4G vision, according to Behmann's talk.

Time will tell whether 4G systems will evolve as predicted to cost effectively serve the appetite of consumers worldwide and give DSL and cable modems a run for their money.