The Next iPhone: Are We Ready for 4G?

When the fanfare of the iPad (s aapl) launch begins to diminish, eyes will begin to look to the fast approaching summer and seek an updated iPhone. Though rumors of the iPhone 4.0 OS are circulating, there’s been little talk about what could be next for the iPhone hardware. Will it take design cues from the iPad with an aluminum enclosure, though that would feel in some ways to be a step backwards? More importantly, is the time right for the iPhone to take the leap to 4G?

A Bit of History

Three years ago when the handset launched, the iPhone was a 2G device. As a quick bit of history to what all of these G’s mean, Wikipedia offers the definition that the naming conventions “generally refer to a change in the fundamental nature of the service.” For example, 2G represented the switch from analog phones to digital ones (the iPhone was never analog). 3G brought multimedia support (recall how the iPhone 3.0 OS didn’t bring MMS support to original iPhones). True 4G networks represent all IP packet switched networks and as a result, consumers benefit from increases in data speeds.

3G is based on two parallel infrastructures of circuit-switched and packet-switched networks. To get a quick idea of the difference, a circuit switched network involves securing a circuit from the origin to the destination. Packet switching involves segmenting the comment into individual packets that can be routed individually (and even take different paths) to reach the destination where they are then reassembled in order. From a technical perspective, this is a much better utilization of resources as capacity isn’t wasted on circuit switching when the circuit may not be in continuous use.

The general idea behind 4G is to provide “a comprehensive and secure all-IP based solution where facilities such as IP telephony, ultra-broadband Internet access, gaming services and streamed multimedia” can be provided to users. Pulling this off, however, involves meeting standards set forth by the International Telecommunication Union. To be in compliance and really be operating at 4G standards, the cellular system must have “target peak data rates of up to approximately 100 megabits per second for high mobility” like mobile access and up to 1 gigabit per second for low mobility, like local wireless access. That’s a very high bar compared to current standards, even compared to what most of you probably have for broadband at home.

The Road Ahead

On the road to 4G, you might encounter something called 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE). Though it technically doesn’t comply with all of the 4G specs (mostly in terms of speed), you’ll still see this branded as 4G. Since last year, that’s where most networks have been headed. LTE promises to bring some speed improvements (and hopefully latency improvements too, as that’s a big issue that really affects how the true speed is perceived).

With the increase of iPhone users on AT&T’s (s att) network in the U.S., there are places across the country where strains are felt during heavy usage times. This reality mixed with the expensive cost and rollout of 4G service means that carriers will continue to invest in their 3G networks, which is a win to everyone. In fact, iPhone 3GS users are capable of taking advantage of the HSPA 7.2 megabits per second speeds if in a compatible market. Trials for this began last year and the technology is still being rolled out over this year.

AT&T announced in February that its next-generation 4G network wouldn’t be available until 2011, though trials would begin later this year. So will the next iPhone be the iPhone 4G? Most likely. The iPhone 3GS was released before AT&T’s networks had upgraded to offer the faster speed and I predict a similar case with this year’s iPhone model. Will Apple call it the iPhone 4G? Especially considering there aren’t plans for a 5G or 6G network in immediate future? That remains to be seen but if I had any say in the matter, I’d prefer it to just be called the iPhone.

What are your thoughts? Do you have the iPhone 3GS and does the network feel faster in your neighborhood? Are you like me and still have the 3G, hoping that the next iPhone will be a substantial upgrade? Drop us a line and tell us what you think.