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3G Players Are On the Starting Blocks

The race to roll out 3G wireless services appears to be gaining steam, with three operators airing their plans at CTIA Wireless 2001 in Las Vegas this week.

Until this week, industry watchers had concluded that 3G services were still years away from making it to the U.S. 3G promises greatly increased wireless bandwidth, making possible more robust wireless applications -- including video and audio streaming, high-speed Internet browsing, e-mail with attachments, digital imaging, rich messaging, on-demand conferencing, voice-to-text applications and enhanced ASP services.

Verizon Wireless made the first move, with Monday's announcement that it inked a $5 billion deal with Lucent Technologies for software, switching centers, base stations and other equipment for its 3G network. Verizon did not release a detailed schedule, but plans to deploy cdma2000 3G1XRTT technology in its coast-to-coast network later this year.

cdma2000 is the 3G version of QUALCOMM's CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) standard, a spread spectrum technology allowing each channel to use the full available spectrum by encoding each transmission with a pseudo-random digital sequence.

The company said the deployment of the 3G technology will potentially double its existing network's voice capacity and increase data transmission speeds by nearly 10 times. Verizon also plans to deploy cdma2000 1xEV-DO (Data Only) technology, which is compatible with existing and new base stations and enables data-only services to customers requiring even greater access speeds for transmitting graphic-intensive files or streaming video downloads.

Sprint PCS Tuesday laid out a more detailed roadmap of its plans. The company is gearing up for a four-phase deployment of 3G services. The first phase mirrors Verizon's plan, with a rollout of 3Gcdma2000 1x, intended to double the voice capacity of its network and increase data transmission speeds ten-fold, from today's 14.4 kbps to up to 144 kbps. Sprint plans to complete the first phase in 2002, making speeds of 144 kbps available in all its U.S. markets. By 2003, the company anticipates moving into the second phase, getting speeds up to 307 kbps. By late 2003, it predicts speeds up to 2.4 mbps using cdma2000 1xEV-DO technology. Finally, in early 2004, it plans to attain speeds between 3 mbps and 5 mbps using 3Gcdma2000 1xEV-DA (Data and Voice) technology.

Sprint has cut deals with Lucent, Motorola, Nortel Networks and QUALCOMM to support its path to 3G.

The race to roll out the networks will likely be heated, as both companies have boasted that they will be first to market with 3G services. But it appears another player may beat them both to the wire.

While Verizon and Sprint focus on cdma2000-based technologies, Cingular Wireless -- a joint venture of SBC Communications and Bell South -- is taking a different path to 3G. Cingular said Tuesday it would roll out fast General Packet Radio Service (GRPS) in its GSM-based U.S. markets in the second quarter this year.

GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications, is a standard that uses the TDMA (Time-Division Multiple Access) protocol as opposed to QUALCOMM's CDMA protocol. GSM divides frequencies into time slots, allowing eight calls on one frequency.

Cingular calls the service "Wireless Internet Express," and billed it as enabling "always on" mobility. Cingular will first make the service available in California, Nevada and Washington. The service will be extended to the southeastern portion of the U.S. later in the year.