Just when I thought I had 3G (third generation) wide area wireless networks (WWANs) figured out (the kind that Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Sprint run), I found out that I didn't have a clue. I was doing a little homework for "Tellywood"-whip Bob Frankston when I noticed that Cingular was not using the terms EDGE ("Enhanced Data Global Evolution" or "Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution", depending on who you talk to) and UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) interchangeably with each other as I have occasionally seen done before (for example, the footnote on the bottom of this page).
EDGE and UMTS are the WWAN technologies that GSM/GPRS-based wireless carriers such as Cingular and T-Mobile are moving to for their cell phones and data cards (used in the PCMCIA slots of notebook computers). GSM is the voice side of the GSM/GPRS duo and it stands for Global System for Mobile communications). GPRS is the data side and stands for General Packet Radio Service. As a side note, Verizon Wireless and Sprint are on CDMA-based (Code Division Multiple Access) flavors such as CDMA 1xRTT (Radio Transmission Technology) and CDMA 1xEV-DO ("Evolution to Data Only" or "Evolution Data Optimized" depending on who you talk to) and phones/data cards from them are not compatible with GSM/GPRS or any of its follow ons. On a global basis, the CDMA 1x technologies (aka "CDMA 2000" technologies) appear only in global pockets such as North America and South Korea. In contrast, GSM/GPRS and its follow-ons are available in most places in the world where wireless carriers operate, which is why, if you need a device that works on other continents (Europe for example), you stand a much better chance of interoperability with a device in the GSM/GPRS/EDGE/UMTS family than you do with something in the CDMA 1x family. You will need to double check the device to make sure it supports the GSM frequencies used in other countries (most do, but some don't) and you'll also have to make sure you have the right roaming agreements in place with your carrier.
Had enough acronyms yet?
As recently as several years ago, the various carriers weren't exactly up to 3G snuff in terms of their performance. For data, GSM players AT&T Wireless (eventually acquired by Cingular), Cingular, and T-Mobile were running on GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and, at only 20-40 kbps in practice, it was dreadfully slow when compared to the competitors (Verizon Wireless and Sprint) who were running on CDMA 1xRTT at speeds of 70-80 kbps (good for email and acceptable for certain Web pages, but not optimal). Over the last couple of years, the CDMA guys were looking like they had the advantage, earning their official 3G stripes after rolling out their 140+ kbps CDMA 1xEV-DO infrastructure (the one that I'm using with an AudioVox XV6600).
More recently, both Cingular and AT&T went through full or partial upgrades of their networks (this was largely just an investigation of Cingular, so I don't have the details on T-Mobile). According to Cingular spokesperson Rich Blase, by virtue of a software upgrade to its existing infrastructure, the wireless carrier was able to roll out its first version EDGE network -- a network that for data ran at two to three times the speed of GPRS (averaging 85 to 135 kbps), putting it pretty much on par with CDMA 1xRTT. Today, that network is available in all 13,000 cities and towns that the Cingular network covers. Meanwhile, AT&T began rolling out an even higher speed GPRS-follow up based on what is known as UMTS Release 99. Generally speaking, when you see the acronym UMTS, it implies a network with a GSM core that's coupled with a high speed wireless data technology known as Wideband-CDMA or wCDMA (this combination is also sometimes referred to as 3GSM - Third Generation GSM) . Then last fall, when Cingular completed its buyout of AT&T Wireless, the latter's UMTS Release 99 rollout was put on hold in favor of a faster flavor of UMTS known as UMTS HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) -- the network that Cingular is currently in the process of rolling out.
Now, Cingular's offerings were starting to make sense to me. Somehow, while doing my research for Bob Frankston, I ended up on a page on Cingular's Web site that was for people interested in data services. As of today, the footnotes of this page were confusing because of the way they introduce the UMTS terminology and then go on to say that it's only available in the greater metro areas of Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and Seattle. Because I though I had seen UMTS and EDGE get used interchangeably before, I was confused because I thought this meant that Cingular's EDGE service was only available in a smattering of locations -- a state of affairs that would have put Cingular way behind Verizon Wireless with its $1 billion EV-DO rollout, currently underway. But, as I said earlier (and according to Cingular's Blase), the EDGE network is in place in 13,000 North American cities and towns, and it's the next speed bump to UMTS that's only available in a handful of locations. Not coincidentally, those happen to be the same locations to which AT&T completed its UMTS Release 99 rollout before Cingular acquired the company, Blase told me. "Once we complete our HSDPA rollout," said Blase, "the service will be available in the top 100 US markets by the end of next year (2006)."
Blase claims the new service, which will take the place of the UMTS Release 99 where it's present, will give users an average of 400-700 kbps with burst speeds capable of several megabits. For the Release 99-based service, Cingular currently charges $80 per month for unlimited data usage (I can't imagine opting for anything else but unlimited data if you're going to the trouble of getting the highest speed possible). When I asked Blase if I could use the Release 99 pricing as an indicator of what Cingular's monthly charge might be ($80 per month for unlimited data), he said "Don't go by that pricing. Pricing will be comparable to what the market is paying elsewhere. People will be consuming the same number of bytes as before and the only difference is that those bytes will just be moving faster." My guess is that, for those people who get the upgrade to the UMTS HSDPA service from something that's slower today, they'll consume many more bytes simply because they can. I know I'd consume more bytes with my XV6600 if I knew that speed wasn't an issue. My guess is that it won't be priced as cheaply as the slower EDGE and EV-DO services, but it also won't be priced as expensively as the current UMTS offering. $59.99 per month sounds about right.
I also asked Blase about device compatibility, particularly with respect to Europe. According to Blase, Cingular will roll HSDPA out with a combination of handsets and PC Cards (for notebooks). The mid-to-high tier handsets will work for voice and data overseas. But, since HSDPA isn't currently available in Europe, the data connections will fall back to EDGE or GPRS, depending on whatever is present. Likewise, data connections will fall back to EDGE in the US if HSDPA users wonder out of one of the 100 markets that Cingular is looking to have activated by the end of 2006.
Finally, this is a good time to bring up a recommendation that I routinely repeat for people who are considering their options when buying a handset or contracting for service from one of the major wireless carriers. Much the same way the three most important success factors for a restaurant are location, location, and location, the three most important criteria when selecting wireless carriers are coverage, coverage, and coverage. You could buy the coolest device in the world that does all the things you want it to do (and hopefully, the carrier doesn't disable those things). But that device won't be worth a hill o' beans to you if it can't get a connection in the places you want it to have that connection most (like your house).
Ask around and find people who use the various networks. Invite them over to your house (and look at the signal strength on the phone). Ask them where they've had problems getting a connection or even better yet, if they're a really good friend, ask them if you can borrow their phone for a couple of hours so you can test it's signal strength in some of the places you go most often (like your office or the local Starbucks). I don't care what the coverage maps from each of the carriers say. I've stared at maps on the computer screen that say I have coverage where I'm sitting while, at the same time, watching my phone tell me I have no signal. The only true test of coverage is to see it for yourself. That's why I may never get to use HSDPA. The signals from Cingular and T-Mobile (the GSM players) aren't nearly as reliable as the signals from Verizon Wireless in my house (I can get 1xEV-DO and when I don't, the phone tells me it's on 1xRTT). Personally, I'd rather have consistent network availability at a slower speed than a faster network that I can't reliably connect to. I recommend the same for you.