3G: We're off to see the future!

Technical adventures on the yellow brick road to the third generation of handhelds and phones

The creation of third generation (3G) mobile networks goes beyond providing better quality mobile phones. 3G links will be used to carry a range of multimedia applications including video-telephony (Orange is already working on a project), video-on-demand and other forms of broadcast media.

But 3G is like a horse race with rival competing technologies vying for the lead, and the likelihood that some entrants may prove to be non-runners.

Take 3G infrastructure technologies. The 3G version of GSM has been christened UMTS 2000 (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System). An agreement has been reached between existing GSM equipment suppliers, mostly European, and Japanese manufacturers, that W-CDMA (Wideband CDMA) should form the basis for 3G/UMTS. However, a series of compromises have been worked out by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union). This leaves Korea and North America with an alternative option in the shape of CDMA2000 (a 3G version of the existing CDMAOne).

There is also a third 3G option based around Edge (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution) a technology that aims to enable existing digital networks (ie 2G) to mutate into 2G+ networks. The 3G version of EDGE is now known as GERAN (GSM/Edge Radio Access Network).

Where does this leave us in late 2000? The major telecoms providers are struggling to demonstrate that W-CDMA technology is already out of the R&D labs and is making an appearance in real life. That's a good thing considering the large sums already spent in countries like the UK, Netherlands and Germany just for the right to build a 3G network. The cost of rolling out the necessary 3G infrastructure is additional. In the meantime intermediate (2G+) technologies are filling the technology vacuum.

The first step in this direction is GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) which works over GSM networks. GPRS provides for an IP based, 'always-on' connection in contrast to existing data over GSM links which are dial-up. So GPRS is effectively the mobile equivalent of ADSL versus a modem connection.

In the UK BT Cellnet has already introduced a trial GPRS service using handsets provided by Motorola and data speed enhancement software produced by Bluekite.com. Consequently with such a setup it is feasible to conduct a full-on (56 Kbit/s alike) HTML browsing session via GPRS. The catch is you need a Windows 98 laptop. And GPRS phones do not roam abroad like GSM handsets do.

There are alternatives to GPRS -- the most obvious being HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switched Data) which Orange already offers in the UK through Nokia. Nokia has developed a means of allowing data to travel over existing GSM networks at 14.4 Kbit/s (as opposed to the standard 9.6 Kbit/s). With HSCSD, the user aggregates or combines more than one telephone call session.

This technology has allowed Orange to combine two calls, resulting in a 28.8 Kbit/s session while three calls can potentially offer 43 Kbit/s. Coincidentally although GPRS was initially touted as providing 115 Kbit/s, most equipment providers now say 40-50 Kbit/s is a more 'realistic' expectation. The disadvantage with HSCSD is that Nokia only offers it via a PC Card. A handset with an infra-red port would be far more useful.

Go to Pt II/ Dominant standard

Find out about competing 3G standards.

What will 3G mean for business?

Who could be the big players of the future in 3G? 3G startups.

Read about the 3G devices of the future.

Find out about the security issues.

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