“Imagine the scenario where there are no more cables running into and inside your home except the utility power line. All the electronic/electrical equipment that you use from phones (mobile and landline) to  Televisions to computers to even electrical utilities like refrigerators, HVAC (cooling and heating systems), washing machines and dishwashers are wireless enabled. These devices can not only talk to each other but can  also be controlled by you through a web-based enterprise software remotely thus enabling you to stream your movies/music, monitor power consumption by each of those devices and decide when and how they should be used.  Even your electrical utility company can collectively monitor all homes in the grid and optimize the power supply during peak hours by either charging you more or controlling the power to your power hungry device. If you have elderly people at home, smart portable gadgets attached to them will transmit their health statistics that can be monitored both by you and their doctors continuously prompting immediate response when needed.”

Smart Grid

Can all these applications and more may become a reality when 4G is rolled out in the next 2 – 5 years?

If you are not too familiar with 4G, it is the 4th generation of mobile communication standards that follow 3G . Just like CDMA and GSM, the two competing standards in the current cellular/mobile ecosystem, 4G has LTE  (Long Term Evolution) and Mobile WiMAX. While both these standards have their pros and cons (see comparison here) what they offer is very high speed data connectivity (approx 75 – 100Mbps DL  ideally although Verizon claims to have achieved 60Mbps in LTE trials) which are much much much higher than your regular broadband connection at home. Wireless carriers, Cable companies and networking companies are investing billions of dollars in building these networks. WiMAX is already being rolled out by Clearwire (a Sprint, Comcast and Google investment) and other wireless (GSM based) titans like Verizon and AT&T are banking on LTE. Billions of dollars are being invested into the infrastructure (i.e. base stations, software etc). According to ABI Research operators will spend around  US$8.6 Billion by 2013 in building LTE infrastructure. Obviously to recover these investments quickly, these companies have to expand, move beyond the regular cellphone services and find new applications where this infrastructure can be put to use.  While the possibilities for 4G applications are plenty,  Smart Homes, Smart Grids and Smart healthcare seem to be the most promising.

Smart Homes

No more will you have wires coming into your home for entertainment and communication. Your land-line, mobile phone, internet and cable will all be transmitted through the 4G network. Your current modems will in some cases be replaced by femtocells. For entertainment most shows will be on-demand and you’ll be able to control what you record and what you want to see remotely. Handhelds (mobile phones, tablets), netbooks, and desktop computers will all converge (you’ll be able to stream movies and music on all at the highest quality). From the network point of view it will all be IP based but with net neutrality coming into play, the biggest challenge for operators will be the QoS guarantee.

Smart Grids

Smart Grids are being touted as the next big goldmine – projected to be much bigger than the internet. It is the convergence of Information Technology, Telecommunications and the Electric grid with an estimated US $165 Billion of investment over the next few years. No wonder everyone from the big companies to the small ones have jumped onto this – Cisco with Energywise, Google with Powermeter, Microsoft with Hohm, IBM, Intel Oracle and a host of other players as shown below are targeting different areas in the Smart Grid.

Click on the image above to enlarge (More on End-to-End Smart Grid)

All these years the missing link in these layers was the WAN  (Wide Area Network) which  now 4G will essentially solve. Smart Grid communication can be broken down into external grid (WAN ) and internal grid (FAN – Field Area Network  or HAN – Home Area Network). External nodes in the WAN will communicate with each other and with the internal network (in the homes) through either LTE or Mobile WiMAX thus presenting an opportunity for the wireless companies to play in this area. AT&T recently announced communication technology for utilities and T-Mobile recently announced durable SIM cards for use in smart meters deployed in homes. The internal grid (FAN or HAN) will connect your smart meter and all your electrical gadgets (HVAC, TV, Washers, Dryers , Car charging station etc) with each other. There are several wireless technologies such as WIFI, Z-Wave, Powerline communications and Zigbee (which is by far the most popular) that will enable the FAN or HAN. Startup companies like Tendrill are providing both the hardware and the software for the smart grid network at home while companies like Grid Net are working with the utility companies.  Through this technology, the hope is that consumers will monitor their energy usage and help reduce the carbon footprint. On the other hand the utility companies can manage the increasing demand for energy efficiently, detect problems in the grid immediately and charge premiums for customers who burden the grid during peak hours. The government is also encouraging smart grid technology through their recent stimulus package. (Learn more about smart grids)

Smart Healthcare

Another area that the wireless operators are banking on is smart healthcare. Obviously with more and more of health records being digitized,  entire healthcare information is moving online. With 4G the wireless carriers will become the central communication link between your data, you and your doctors or healthcare providers. In addition to that companies like AT&T are investing in RFID/Zigbee enabled gadgets that can monitor health parameters (like blood pressure and other stats) and send them to a central device in the home or building. This centraldevice then transmits the aggregated data through the 4G network to the doctors who can then get alerted or set up remote consultations with the patients if needed. In the case, the network of health monitoring gadgets on one’s body is known as BAN (Body Area Network). The technology has great scope and opportunity in elderly homes or assisted living centers in addition to regular homes.

All in all the applications are numerous and there are opportunities for many companies especially start-ups to play in this huge market. Semiconductor companies like Analog, TI etc have opportunities in the RF components space, companies like Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson have opportunities in base stations, and routers, several startups are working on femtocells and many other companies are working on the software applications for remote management,  and analysis (both for utilities and consumers). The opportunity for wireless operators is undoubtedly huge. Moreover, the “Future Apps and Services” segment as shown in the image above is very nascent and wide open for potential entrepreneurs to exploit. However,  the speed at which 4G is rolled out and the speed at which consumers and utility companies adopt these smart technologies will determine the success of all stakeholders. In developing countries like India and China, Smart Grids and Smart Healthcare may not be a reality in the near future but just the roll-out of 4G will create so many opportunities  just in the internet segment – by hooking up the remotest places into the network (without running a single wire into the rural areas).

4G and the applications it will enable will be an interesting space to watch for sure. The question is whether you as a consumer are ready for it and think the applications are useful?