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3G cometh not so fast

3G critics point to its staggeringly high cost and the long-shot odds that telecoms will ever recoup their investment. Many believe that long before 3G networks are completed, alternative solutions will replace them. Do they have a point?

Conventional wisdom has all but conceded that high-speed wireless access will require third-generation cellular networks—3G for short.

While other solutions abound, only 3G promises to deliver broadband access (2 megabits per second, or Mbps) anywhere, anytime: videoconferencing from a cell phone, feature-length movies downloaded to a handheld, 3D maps piped to your car's dashboard, and so on.

Critics point to the staggeringly high cost of building these networks and the long-shot odds that telecoms will ever recoup their investment. Many believe that long before 3G networks are completed, alternative solutions will replace them.

Do they have a point? A stroll along the money trail provides clues.

Motorola, for example, leads the cheer for 3G. As one of the largest cell phone makers in the world, the company provides everything in the chain for wireless broadband—from networks to e-commerce applications to handsets. When asked if 3G will ever see the light of day, Roderick Kelly, Motorola spokesperson, doesn't even pause to draw a breath. "First quarter in 2003," he chirps.

Kelly says 3G networks will be slower to arrive in the United States, though they'll begin rolling out in Israel, Japan, and Korea by the end of this year. Lars Nilsson, manager of strategic marketing for Ericsson—another wireless powerhouse—agreed at press time that 3G would be rolled out in parts of Japan by May, though he is skeptical about Europe.

The Holy Grail for 3G—universal coverage—is another matter entirely. Nilsson is quick to remind, "In some remote parts of the U.S. you still have only analog service today."

Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of interim technologies promises to deliver wireless Net access up to four times faster than a dial-up modem, but slower than an Ethernet connection. These so-called 2.5G networks—iDEN, GPRS, and VoiceStream, for example—will roll out faster than true 3G networks, yet they'll face the same key obstacle: coverage.

3G critics say that until users can access the Net at high speeds from every major metropolitan area in the United States, content providers won't deliver the kind of enticing goods and services that create a stampede of demand for the wireless Web.

Brian Grimm, communications director for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, prefers to sidestep the hullabaloo. The Alliance's standard is called Wi-Fi, based on the IEEE 802.11b protocol. "I don't see Wi-Fi as an alternative to 3G," he says. "But it hits the sweet spot where you spend the bulk of your time working."

Unlike 3G networks, Wi-Fi doesn't provide anywhere, always-on Web connections. Your handset or notebook PC must have an adapter and reside within 300 feet of a wireless access point. What the standard does provide is a cheap and simple way to get speedy wireless access today. With a $99 to $199 PC Card adapter, you're set to go. Any hotel, airport lounge, or street café with a DSL, T1, or T3 connection can install an access point for $300 to $1,000. The result is an instant wireless network. The Wi-Fi standard traffics data at roughly 4Mbps to 6Mbps—or about three times as fast as a T1 connection.

Can Wi-Fi make an end run on 3G networks? Despite the booming popularity of the technology, it's a power hog, which dooms it for use in cell phones. Besides, it's at war with several competing standards. Similar limitations hamper Bluetooth, which offers only point-to-point connections.

In other words, Grimm's analysis is probably correct. 3G networks hold the best hope for ubiquitous high-speed wireless connections to the Net. But they are several years away from delivering on their promise. In the meantime, more than a half-dozen solutions will give you a fast wireless on-ramp to the Web.