IT trends impacting IP video: 4G network standards

Over the past decade, wired network connectivity has jumped from 100Mbit/s to 10,000Mbit/s (or 10Gbit/s), finally laying to rest the argument that bandwidth consumption is an obstacle to IP video solutions. With today's advances in bandwidth capacity and compression technology, many security professionals are marrying these complementary trends to successfully implement network cameras and increase deployment of high-definition imagery. But as more users push for wireless access to their surveillance systems, a new question arises as to whether mobile networks can support this demand.

Currently 3G cellular networks offer enough bandwidth to stream VGA video signals at reduced frame rates which, in some cases, is exactly what the surveillance application requires. Over the past year, however, HDTV surveillance video has gained tremendous market acceptance which has driven quality expectations to a level that is not attainable with existing 3G mobile network implementations.

Though AT&T and Verizon continue to stage media wars about who has the better 3G network, it's clear that 4G cellular networks hold the key to greater bandwidth capacity and more efficient compression algorithms for mobile video. We're now reaching the point where mobile connectivity can certainly deliver sufficient bandwidth to support a variety of video applications. This article will explain the technology standards being implemented in 4G networks and provide insight into how they could affect the security industry.

The battle for standards supremacy in wireless networks

At the turn of the decade, the battle lines were drawn for control over the fourth generation in cellular networks - also known as 4G. Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMAX, was introduced in 2001 as a technology for last-mile implementations of broadband wireless access. Originally scoped as an alternative to DSL and cable, manufactures started integrating this technology directly into computing devices such as mobile phones and laptops. Sprint was the first telecommunications company in United States to build a 4G mobile network based on WiMAX technology.

Four years later, the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) introduced a competing standard - Long Term Evolution (LTE). LTE is an extension of existing 3G mobile networks used today -- which is why some people don't consider it a true 4G mobile network. Despite its perceived lack of next-generation innovation, LTE assumed the technology leadership role because of its current higher-speed capabilities. More than 40 telecommunications companies worldwide, including AT&T and Verizon, have chosen LTE for their 4G mobile networks. This widespread deployment has made LTE the de facto standard.

The evolution of mobile bandwidth

In today's 3G wireless networks, mobile download speeds generally range between 500Kbit/s to 1.5Mbit/s. In cities like Seattle and Philadelphia where WiMAX is offered, however, customers are seeing bandwidth speeds approaching 6Mbit/s. At these data rates, you can successfully deploy video applications, but only if you're willing to sacrifice image quality and/or frame rate. For instance, a 720p video stream using H.264 compression might consume 4-8Mbit/s, which puts it out of reach for 3G networks while fully consuming bandwidth capacity for WiMAX networks.

LTE, on the other hand, specifies download speeds of at least 100Mbit/s, which is comparable to existing local area networks. More importantly for video applications, LTE specifies upload speeds of at least 50Mbit/s. These distinctions become essential in any number of surveillance applications. For example, upload speeds are important for supporting installations where cameras are located at a remote site and send video to a centralized recorder. If operators are viewing video remotely on their handheld displays, then download speeds are a critical consideration. In either case, LTE offers significant bandwidth improvements over WiMAX and traditional 3G wireless networks and enables the delivery of higher-quality video feeds which in turn give the security professional better situational awareness.

Limitations of existing WiFi applications

Most video systems allow you to view live and recorded images over wireless networks based on the 802.11a, b, g, or n standards, which define wireless networking speeds. Some have expanded capabilities to include connectivity over cellular networks. In both cases the actual deployment by security professionals has been limited for two simple reasons: Proximity and image quality.

WiFi deployments are geographically confined to a particular area which limits the need for truly mobile solutions. A guard touring a building may benefit from having access to high-quality video via a handheld device, but will lose connection as soon as he leaves the area of coverage. A business owner may be able to view live video of the warehouse over a cellular phone, but the limited resolution and frame rate required to view images might not provide any valuable information.

The 4G difference for security, safety and loss prevention

How does the scenario change when you introduce LTE-powered 4G cellular networks to the security professional's arsenal? Now you can deliver a 720p HDTV mobile video signal using highly efficient H.264 compression at data rates between 4 and 8Mbit/s, which are well within the data rates specified by the LTE standard. Law enforcement and life safety professionals could stream live HDTV-quality video to command centers or handheld devices using a cellular data plan purchased from their provider of choice. A loss prevention officer would have greater flexibility for deploying video surveillance in situations that involve retail stores with limited or no network infrastructure simply by combining a covert network camera with a 4G access point from their mobile phone provider.

Phone companies will spearhead next-gen network rollouts

Phone companies will be the ones controlling the introduction of next-generation mobile bandwidth technology, so it will be their rollout schedules and cost structures that we need to pay close attention to. While the LTE standard specifies certain download and upload bandwidths, it does not guarantee that these speeds will be available immediately. It is more likely that bandwidth offerings will be scaled upwards over the course of deployment. Today, Verizon is in the beginning stages of its national rollout. AT&T plans to launch its LTE deployment in 2011. Bear in mind that cellular phone companies have traditionally rolled out new technologies in specific markets based on the number of users they can reach. So if you live in a major city you are more likely to become a recipient than if you reside in a rural setting.

In trying to predict cost models one can examine existing data plans for 3G networks that offer unlimited data contracts for a fixed price -- but we can't be sure that this business practice will extend to the next generation offerings.

How 4G networks will reshape tomorrow's surveillance solutions

Advances in 4G cellular network technology are beginning to diminish concerns about mobile bandwidth consumption for video applications. As a direct result of ongoing improvements, surveillance professionals will be able to offer a broader array of remote access options to customers. This will encourage more competition which will ultimately lower the cost of bandwidth even further.

About the author: James Marcella has been a technologist in the security and IT industries for more than 17 years. He is currently the director of technical services for Axis Communications.