3G: It's a standards thing

A glimpse into the future of 3G can yield a terrifying array of acronyms and competing standards. But really the future's simple -- the consumer just wants to switch on their phone and get great service

The road to 3G is, most experts agree, a journey worth making -- bringing us multimedia phones with huge and exciting potential. But as with all roads to promised lands it will be strewn with rocks and hazardous hurdles. Significant among these is the need to roll out an entire set of standards to bridge the voice data divide, leaving many questioning what the alphabet soup of standards will mean for 3G.

The 3G standard that has been agreed on for Europe, Japan, China and the rest of Asia is UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and it is hoped it will follow in the footsteps of the current mobile standard GSM (Global System for Mobile)

GSM can rightly pat itself on the back for being a standard that works, and works well. While committee upon committee battle to find agreeable standards for DVD, digital music and a host of other technologies, GSM has quietly united the majority of Europe under one mobile communication umbrella. Perhaps the best thing about GSM is the fact that it is one of few European technological innovations to leave our American buddies green with envy. It has given Europe a huge head start over the US in mobile developments.

An agreement thrashed out in Istanbul in May by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) saw the ratification of five world standards for 3G. The meeting was heralded by government ministers as a historic step towards the brave new world of multimedia mobile communications.

Secretary-general of the ITU Yoshio Utsumi described the ratification as the result of "ten years of considerable intellectual and engineering efforts by an entire industry determined to leapfrog the fragmentation which prevailed until now in the wireless world".

Paul Read, spokesman for the ITU, believes that implementing Europe's standard -- UMTS -- will go as smoothly as GSM before it. "I think that the activity of 3G builds on the success of GSM which proved that it is possible to take a particular technology and apply it around the world," he says. So far Read claims there is a "good dialogue" between players and is optimistic that standards will be agreed upon.

But others question why the world needs five different 3G standards. With 2.5G -- a necessary evil in the move to 3G -- there are going to be a huge number of standards that need to be supported. "Handsets are going to need to support multiple standards, so an average handset will have to support GSM, GPRS, Edge [a 2.5G standard] and HSCSD [the 2.5G standard endorsed by Orange]," says Russell Inman, 3G system design manager for infrastructure provider Crown Castle. "This plethora of standards places quite a demand on manufacturers," he says.

Inman believes the need to support several standards poses serious problems for handset manufacturers. They face, he believes, two choices. Neither are consumer-friendly. "Potentially it could mean more expensive handsets or bigger handsets. The phones will need bigger batteries to cater for all the standards so it will be a trade-off -- less talk time or bigger phones," he says.

Read agrees: "The challenge will be with the manufacturers to build systems and terminals in a realistic and reliable way," he says.

Unsurprisingly manufacturers are quick to dispel concerns: "Everything we build is built to a standard. We have championed open standards more than anyone," says Mark Squires, business development manager with Nokia.

Nokia's head of 3G market positioning Joe Barrett believes the real battle for standards lies in the nitty gritty of putting networks together. "Operators have to have open interfaces," he says. Put simply, this means that all equipment needed to get base stations communicating with the network need to have open standards. "It is critical to operators that they can use equipment from any supplier. That ensures lots of competition and keeps prices down."

While we wait for UMTS, the next big standard buzz is coming from GPRS -- the European 2.5G standard, necessary to bridge the gap between current voice-centric phones and the data-rich mobiles of 3G. According to Nigel Deighton, analyst with GartnerGroup, GPRS could suffer a backlash similar to the WAP experience. He claims that speeds are unlikely to go above 28kbps. "That is as far as GPRS will go. People will be disillusioned by the fact the speeds are below what is hoped for," he says.

Inman is also wary of what first generation GPRS can do. "Expectations are placed high based on technical ability which is in excess of 100kbps, but there are two issues stopping it getting to that rate," he says. "The first of these is that handsets will never support such high data rates and the second is that networks will need additional infrastructure to support higher bandwidth."

As operators compete to get the highest speeds possible out of mobile phones, other standards will also be thrown into the pot as alternatives to GPRS or even for UMTS. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Edge (Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution), which some commentators believe will not only be favoured over GPRS but will be used by some for 3G networks.

Deighton thinks that Edge may become a very attractive 3G alternative for operators who cannot afford to buy into the increasingly crazily priced auction of 3G spectrum. "Edge may rise like a phoenix from the ashes. It will be viable for operators who didn't get licences. It makes much more economic sense to upgrade to Edge rather than GPRS," he says.

Others see Edge merely as the natural successor to GSM and a partner for UMTS. Chris Pearson, vice president of marketing at UWCC (Universal Wireless Communications Consortium) believes UMTS and Edge will work in partnership as we edge towards a 3G world. "UMTS will be deployed in major cities and Edge in outlying areas," he says.

AT&T, though, has already announced its intention to use Edge for its 3G networks, claiming it will deliver a maximum data rate of 384kbps. Experts point out that this is a generous estimation, based on the ideal scenario of one person using the network standing next to a base station.

Inman agrees that Edge will deliver rates of around 384kbps and while he admits this is straying into the 3G realm, he remains unconvinced it will be seen as a viable 3G option for many operators. In the end, whether Edge is chosen over GPRS, will come down to cost: "GPRS utilises the existing network whereas Edge requires new base station equipment which is a major capital outlay."

However rocky the journey to 3G there is one thing all the experts agree on -- it is going to be huge. Research firm Yankee Group predicts that there will be 60 million wireless data devices in America alone by 2005.

The road to 3G has already been tentatively trod in Japan, where Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) have introduced DoCoMo -- meaning "anywhere" in Japanese -- its mobile computing service provider. In February DoCoMo launched its GPRS i-mode service which now has seven million users in Japan.

The rest of the world is about to follow suit and while it is almost certain that the plethora of standards will continue to plague developers and committees, it is worth pointing out that consumers do not care about acronyms.

Pearson reminds us that whatever standard wins through is completely irrelevant to consumers. "Consumers don't care too much about technology," he says. "In the end the consumer just wants to turn on his/her wireless device and get great service."

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