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4G wireless networks for content distribution? No thank you
There is a lot of hype around the potential of the Internet and how it is going to dramatically disrupt the content and television markets.

23 March 2012
There is a lot of hype around the potential of the Internet and how it is going to dramatically disrupt the content and television markets. A lot of this hype is fuelled by the recent decisions of the FCC in the US and the European Commission, to begin claiming back air spectrum to allocate it to wireless data distribution.

While this is a reasonable decision from a commercial point of view (spectrum is a finite resource that has to be  streamlined and used in the most efficient way possible) the excitement and  anticipated enthusiasm that the next generation of wireless web will fix all bandwidth problems and therefore distribute everything to everyone all the time are misplaced.

Let’s see why.

Wireless technology has two important characteristics which determine its effectiveness as a medium for content distribution:

First, the higher the frequency the shorter the distance the signal is able to travel and the more difficult it is for the signal to pass through obstacles.  

The spectrum available today is mostly in the higher frequency range, given that low frequency bands are already being used for a number of services among which is wireless communication. The excitement about the ability to use higher frequencies is due to the fact that the higher the frequency, the more data that can be transferred by the signal.

The problem that is not being addressed is that the higher the frequency the shorter is the path the signal can travel. This implies that the new wireless communication network will require significantly higher numbers of repeaters and antenna, therefore requiring a significant network upgrade to transform available spectrum into usable bandwidth.

The added and potentially more important problem is that the higher the frequency of the signal the more difficult it will be to pass through obstacles, like walls, buildings, trees, etc. This will require each household having to “harvest” the signal from outside the building and bring it in through the built-in house cabling, in the same way a broadcast antenna on the roof of a building receives the signal and distributes it to all the apartments within that building.

Apparently the wireless network of the future will require “rabbit ears” very much like the broadcast network of today.

The second important characteristic of wireless technology is that the bandwidth within a cell will have to be shared by all those people accessing the network at the same time from within that cell.

When people talk about LTE or WiMAX offering bandwidth for up to 100 Mbps, they are consciously or unconsciously talking about "shared bandwidth", meaning that if a video transmission takes 1 Mbps for an iPad (HD quality), the operator will be able to deliver the video  of good quality up to only 100 people per cell.  The moment the 101th person connects to the service, no subscriber in the cell will receive the content at the quality they paid for.

If one now considers that 4G wireless standards like LTE, WiMAX and others have a cell radius of 5 Km, one can conclude that there is a very high probability that even the wireless network of the future will rarely be capable of delivering content to all the people at the right quality.

That is definitely worse than today’s “obsolete” broadcast network.

Gianluca Ferremi
VP Sales & Marketing Motive Television