After appearing hopelessly mired in an international standards debate that was heavily influenced by national politics and corporate profit concerns, the next generation of wireless technology has emerged whole and fit and ready to ramble.
Third generation, or 3G, wireless technology may even exceed the goals of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which launched its development, by becoming the world's first truly global wireless standard.
Deployment of 3G technology is still years away in the United States - 2002 is the earliest projection for beginning deployment. It will hit Japan and Europe before that time. But in the meantime, a range of what are now known as 2.5G systems will enter the wireless market beginning next year and promise to enable a whole new range of applications.
"We definitely got the standards process for next generation radio back on track," says Peter MacLaren, vice president of strategic market relations at Nortel Networks. "But a lot is going to happen in the wireless industry before these next-generation radios start getting deployed."
Up until January 1999, it appeared the industry was headed for the same sort of split in wireless standards that exists today. The U.S. has three different flavors of wireless technology in place; Europe and much of the rest of the world have one, the global system for mobile communication (GSM). When the ITU had launched 3G research in 1986, through its IMT-2000 initiative, it was looking to define the requirements for wireless systems that would come after the first two technology generations - the first being analog and the second, the various digital technologies.
But the early attempts at 3G decision-making were anything but agreeable. In Japan and in Europe, operators and manufacturers were rallying around a technology known as Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA), which would be substantially different from the CDMA systems, used primarily in North America today, and based on cdmaOne technology from Qualcomm.
The U.S. government was lobbying for allowing the market to decide how 3G should progress, but there was widespread concern among cellular operators in the U.S. that if a new version of CDMA gained footing worldwide, they would be isolated in a global market.
The clouds began to part in January, when the two separate camps agreed to work together in what is now known as the Operators' Harmonization Group. That group made a report to the ITU in June that recommended creation of a single flexible standard for 3G, and included recommendations for an approach to CDMA that would allow existing CDMA network operators to transition their networks to 3G while allowing operators in Europe and Japan that will obtain new spectrum to operate a WCDMA approach.
The group promised to set in place a way to include the third form of digital technology - Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) - in the 3G plan by year's end.
Simply getting to an agreement has cleared the way for many carriers to begin more serious consideration of wireless data services that 3G technology ultimately supports.
"This was a significant development," says Brian O'Shaughnessy, vice president of technology and development at Bell Mobility, a Canadian wireless operator that has moved very quickly into wireless data. "Given that we have everybody in the world focused on developing one product line, the costs should be better in terms of handset costs, and there should in general be better global economies of scale. If we can reduce the cost of the phone by $1 by having a single standard, the savings globally will be $50 billion."
Resolution of the standards debate also reduces the business risks wireless network operators must make to move forward with 3G.
"Six months ago, our customers were facing major indecision," says John Giere, vice president of strategic marketing and public affairs at Ericsson. "If their choice for 3G technology was undermined by subsequent political events, they could find themselves cut off. Now, most have moved into the discussion of what kind of rollout to have, not whether to do it."
The rollout decision has been made easier by the fact that equipment makers have come up with interim steps for each of the three major flavors of wireless technology.
For CDMA network operators, "it's really a very simple transition, because CDMA was designed to do a fairly easy migration to higher speeds," says Perry LaForge, executive director at the CDMA Development Group. With a channel card change, the wireless systems that today support 9.6- to 14.4-kilobit-per-second speeds will support 144 Kbps in a mobile environment, says LaForge.
There also will be a new version of the current CDMA radios, known as 1XRTT, says MacLaren, which will double the network capacity and provide more flexibility. Nortel expects its version to be out in late 2000.
"We'd expect the CDMA companies to add an overlay backbone of the new radios in areas where capacity is an issue, and continue operating the older radios as they evolve to the newer ones," he says.
In the 2003 to 2004 timeframe, radios that will support 5 megahertz of bandwidth will become available to support 384 Kbps data in a mobile environment and 2 Mbps in a fixed setting, says Brian Bollinger, director of wireless strategy for Lucent Technologies.
The transition for TDMA and GSM involves a two-stage process involving General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) software that can run over existing or new radios and provide packet data services, and a network expansion known as Enhanced Data for Global Evolution (EDGE), which increases available time slots and data rates.
TDMA network operators also must make the transition to a packet network backbone, so that data traffic is transported over an Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network, not through the circuit switches that support voice traffic today, MacLaren says.
\"I think you'll see different network operators choose different transition paths," he says. "There will likely be some that take the first step and add packet data to their networks, but don't rush out and build 3G networks. From a customer standpoint, the step to 2.5G may be more significant - that's when wireless data becomes available at reasonable speeds and costs."
Long term, the global 3G framework will have a couple of options, Bollinger says, including one for companies that want to build 3G networks using WCDMA in new spectrum. "But there will also be options for companies that want to work in their existing spectrum for CDMA today," Bollinger says.
In North America, wireless subscribership is growing at record rates, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. And network operators may have their hands full dealing with that growth.
"Most wireless operators are looking for something to differentiate themselves," LaForge says. "In that sense, competition has forced some of these early forays into wireless information services, albeit at a slow rate."
Bell Mobility is not moving slowly, however, but has launched a suite of data services, including selling PCS phones that are also 14.4-Kbps modems and can plug into a laptop's serial port, O'Shaughnessy says. It also has put Phone.com's mobile browser into every phone it has shipped since May. Customers can preset connections to Bell Mobility's customer care site and to weather information and stock quotes.
"In these early days, Bell Mobility offers the services for free, counting its profits in higher airtime. Many think that's a model that will change.
LaForge believes pricing is one of many issues the industry must resolve.
"I don't think people know what the winning model is yet," he says. "It's very early in the game, but at least now we're in the game."
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