Sony Corp. cast a vote of confidence in one next-generation wireless standard Wednesday, joining other wireless heavy-hitters such as Motorola and Siemens to support the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS).
But aside from its less-than-memorable acronym, it, and other futuristic wireless services, will face a real challenge in overcoming consumer confusion and disinterest.
"We're in a period of mass confusion regarding wireless, especially in the United States, and it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Alan Reiter, editor and president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, an industry newsletter. "It's still very up in the air, so to speak."
UMTS is a forward-looking initiative, supported by Alcatel Telecom, Bosch Telecom, Italtel, Motorola, Northern Telecom and Siemens, that is supposed to consolidate the best features of the major competing digital wireless systems, while dramatically increasing the bandwidth wireless methods can carry.
That would make data-intensive applications like videoconferencing and high-speed Internet access possible -- for a price. But even without much of a price hike, the demand for high-bandwidth wireless might not support a new system for the foreseeable future, according to industry watchers.
James McAteer, a senior industry analyst with SRI Consulting, Menlo Park, Calif., put it bluntly: "As we say in England, it's a load of bollocks... I don't see a business case for high throughput in the mobile world... you won't be seeing any big consumer pull for a third generation in the foreseeable future, as in the next five to seven years.
"Who the hell wants mobile videoconferencing?" he continued. "I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life."
The spark for systems like UMTS comes from two impulses, according to analysts: the lack of a universal digital wireless standard, and an increasing interest in wireless data applications. But both of those demands can be met with existing, "second generation" systems, they said.
UMTS would combine the advantages of Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), and has compatibilities with Global System for Mobile (GSM) Communications wireless systems, accounting for the three major digital wireless formats used today -- the so-called second generation of wireless, after the older analog systems.
But UMTS is only one of several possible third-generation systems; for example, TDMA and CDMA supporters are working on their own broadband formats. Analyst McAteer said wireless providers were likely to continue working to make present systems compatible, rather than adopting any universal standard.
As for sending data over wireless, with applications like receiving E-mail in real time and sending traffic updates to car-based computers, current systems could provide all the bandwidth most customers would need, according to McAteer.
McAteer's own confidence is with the future of data communications over presently existing wireless systems. "I think there's a market there for packet data over GSM and CDMA," he said. "We just need a protocol to develop packet data over second-generation networks... I want to see them doing something with narrowband CDMA before they do wideband CDMA."
UMTS currently exists in the form of a concept proposal, submitted by Siemens earlier this year to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. Its supporters say it will be ready for a commercial rollout around 2002 to 2005.