In Chicago, a 4G coming-of-age party

CHICAGO -- Carriers, chipset makers and device manufactures this week threw something of a coming-of-age party on behalf of 4G wireless technologies.

Some background: We veteran tech reporters have grown accustomed in recent years to watching flashy demonstrations where wireless companies show us how they're able to stream high-definition video over wide areas without any jitter or dropped coverage. But such demonstrations were noticeably absent from this week's 4G World in Chicago because these 4G technologies that have been hyped for years have now largely matured.

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After all, the past year has seen both AT&T and Verizon commercially deploy LTE services in major U.S. markets, while Sprint and Clearwire have steadily expanded their WiMax footprint to cover all major American markets. So while past 4G conventions brimmed with buzz about the high speeds and strong coverage that LTE and WiMax would provide, company representatives at this year's 4G World took a step back and reflected on what they'd already accomplished in deploying 4G services.

"The range of customer problems that you can solve and when you can connect a 4G network to something that sits behind a corporate firewall is exciting," said Alan Panezic, Research in Motion's vice president of software. "To me personally, the way I think about 4G is that it's Wi-Fi without all the thinking, because it works everywhere. I have Wi-Fi speeds wherever I go."

Ira Gorelick, a senior manager of business development at Verizon Wireless, had similar thoughts about the significance of 4G services and he said it would change users' expectations for the quality of service that wireless coverage could provide.

"The thing I like about 4G as opposed to Wi-Fi is I don't have to log back in every 100 meters," he said.

And now that carriers and device manufacturers had done the big work of getting 4G networks and devices up and running, they focused more this week on discussing the comparatively smaller work of how to expand coverage by freeing more spectrum or offloading traffic onto femtocells. In fact, LTE and WiMax this week took a backseat to near-field communications (NFC) as the most buzz-worthy technology of the conference.

For the uninitiated, NFC technology is what Google is using to power its Google Wallet application that lets users purchase goods in stores with their smartphones. During the NFC Summit at 4G World, representatives from many companies in the NFC market stressed that mobile payments were just the beginning of the many uses that NFC capabilities will bring to our smartphones.

For example: Hans Reisgies, an NFC guru and senior vice president of products and sales at Sequent Software, said that he can't wait to see how NFC-enabled phones improve the experience of dating.

"Let's say you're at a social function and there's an attractiveness between you and another person there but you don't know if you want to spend time trying to get to know them," he said. "So what do we do? Well, we could do standard questions-and-answers. Or we take out our phones and tap them together to exchange our eHarmony IDs. This gets me a compatibility score immediately so we now know how eHarmony thinks of our compatibility."

And this is pretty much where the mobile industry stands after spending the past few years investing heavy sums of money into 4G infrastructure: They're focusing on the little things, at least for a little while.

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