It's been almost a year since the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) approved specifications for the next iteration of wireless data networks -- specs that would give speeds up to 10 times faster than they are now.

Called IMT-Advanced, the ITU claimed the new technology will give mobile device users maximum speeds of 1 gigabit per second and improve spectrum efficiency so as to enhance overall quality of service.

But when will those speeds actually make their way to everyday wireless users? Colin Langtry, chief of the radio communications study group for the ITU, said IMT-Advanced deployments will likely occur in the more advanced countries in the shorter term. "And in the longer term, perhaps 2015, you could expect a widespread deployment of that technology,” he said, adding that establishing standards is one of the first steps before countries can begin implementing the technology, and it often takes a long time before adoption begins.

While real-world measurements of wireless technologies typically don't measure up, IMT-Advanced is purported by the ITU to be much closer to the speeds originally promised by 4G technology. With speeds 100 times faster than what current 3G devices can achieve, IMT-Advanced will be like plugging a fiber-optic cable into a mobile phone, said François Rancy, director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau.

Other experts, however, have said that the fastest iterations of IMT-Advanced will reach only 15 megabits per second in the real world. Though that is faster than the 12 megabits per second currently offered by 4G services, it is not the huge leap the ITU claims.

One strength of the new standard, Langtry said, is that it's interoperable and backward-compatible with current 4G technologies. Two versions of the IMT-Advanced standard were created -- LTE-Advanced for piggybacking on carriers that use 4G LTE and WirelessMAN-Advanced for those who have adopted WiMax. “There is continuity,” Langtry said. “It's not disruptive introduction of a new technology.”

With billions of mobile devices drawing data from cell towers around the world, the need for mobile bandwidth remains strong, but it is conceivable that technology could eventually outpace the need of individuals to request data. However, Langtry pointed out, there is a trend toward machine-to-machine data transactions that will necessitate increased mobile bandwidth over the next five to 10 years. With the advent of smart cities and smart grids, more bandwidth will be needed for automated mobile applications.

In part to meet increased demand for wireless data transfers, the ITU will meet for the World Radio Conference in 2015 to re-establish international wireless spectrum usage. Though planning is still in an early stage, an agenda of proposed conference topics can be viewed online.

Looking even further into the future, the University of Surrey in the UK announced in October a $56 million research program to begin study on 5G wireless technology. The funding, which came from government grants and private companies such as Huawei, Samsung, Telefonica Europe, Fujitsu Laboratories Europe, Rohde-Schwarz and AIRCOM International, will be used to develop a specialized research center for developing 5G technology in Europe.

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Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com