RealTime IT News

Getting To Know Your 3G

The U.S. is getting ready for the big push of next-generation of wireless digital phone deployments this year, and not surprisingly, the inevitable marketing push by wireless carriers has many scratching their heads over what these new phones will actually do.

3G, which promises to free folks from the shackles of PC dependency, will supposedly herald in a new era of mobile computing, ranging from receiving and sending e-mails to watching your favorite movie or attending a video teleconference.

The technology comes in different flavors depending on who is offering the service. Ultimately designed to deliver 384 Kbps connection speeds over the phone, 3G as a practical matter is years and years from that utopian goal.

But looks (and marketing campaigns) can be deceiving. Many carriers tout data speeds up to 2 Mbps in the near future, but that is only part of the truth. Theoretically, those speeds can be achieved from a stationary user, one who is sitting on a park bench, for example. Movement of any kind dramatically slows down that speed, from 384 Kbps for walking users down to 128 Kbps for individuals in a car or bus.

In today's world, U.S. 3G users can realistically expect data speeds of somewhere between 40 to 80 Kbps, a far cry from mainly hypothetical speeds of 144 Kbps and 192 Kbps.

Two standards approved by the International Telecommunications Union, the standards body for the communications world, have emerged as the dominant wireless technology of choice in the country: code division multiple access (CDMA) and global system for mobile communications (GSM).

CDMA is one of the few standards able to make the migration from 2G (digital wireless) to 3G. CDMA2000 1X is the standard that delivers the first of three 3G speed levels on the standard, delivering speeds up to 144 Kbps. Calls placed on a CDMA phone use all the spectrum available to deliver the voice or data message, hopping from one frequency to the next. The standard finds its roots in WWII, where English communications experts spread their voice transmissions over a block of spectrum to foil German snoopers.

The CDMA2000 1XRTT is the first entry into 3G, but not the only one. Primarily, a stepping-stone to true 3G speeds and services, 1XRTT occupies the 1.25 MHz spectrum. The next generation, called CDMA2000 1xEV, will harness blistering speeds by today's standards of more than 2 Mbps. Manufacturers plan to roll out products for the standard some time in 2002, though consumer's shouldn't expect to see their phones using those speeds until at least late 2003.

GSM is the de facto wireless transmission of choice in Europe and Asia, and has been in more than 100 markets for a couple years now. It operates on the time division multiple access (TDMA) standard, which is similar to CDMA but for the fact it divides the radio spectrum into time slots and allocating those slots to different callers over one frequency, as opposed to CDMA's spread spectrum solution. It's drawback is relatively slow 9.6 Kbps data speed.

A sub-standard has emerged to support current GSM migrations to 3G: general packet radio service (GPRS). GPRS gives carriers transport speeds starting at GSM's 9.6 Kbps and increases the potential top speed to 171 Kbps and will be deployed by Cingular simultaneously with its GSM deployment.

The Top 4 3G players and their rollout dates:

  • No. 1: Verizon Wireless CDMA2000 1X (launched this week to select markets)
  • No. 2: Cingular Wireless (a joint venture of SBC Communications and BellSouth GSM, GPRS, EDGE (tentative 2004 date)
  • No. 3: AT&T Wireless GPRS (launched last year in select markets)
  • No. 4: Sprint PCS CDMA2000 1X (mid-2002)

Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless have been making the most noise lately in their 3G rollouts, and so far AT&T Wireless holds the edge when it comes to 3G, though both have lots of room for improvement.

Verizon Wireless' launch this week is largely a misnomer. Many claimed their CDMA launch was actually a 2.5G deployment, a mix of digital voice and limited data services (e-mail, specially-formatted Web pages). In that, both sides are partly correct and one side is partly wrong.

"That's not the case," said John Johnson, a Verizon Wireless spokesperson. "If you look at the 3G standard, the first level of the 3G standard is 1XRTT that specifies the speed of up to 144KBps. Whoever's saying that is misinformed... there are three speed levels in the 3G standard and we are meeting the requirements of the first of the three with our 1X rollout."

What Verizon officials didn't mention was that while the service is technically a service that can potentially deliver speeds up to 144 Kbps using CDMA2000 1XRTT, it doesn't. In fact, you can't even use a digital phone for the service at the time being, since the only products able to use the service are PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Shauna Smith, a wireless industry analyst with ARS Inc., said the Verizon Wireless launch this week was a disappointment for the industry and users looking to capitalize on 3G.

"(Verizon Wireless officials) say the maximum speeds that they provide are 144 Kbps, but actual speeds are 40 to 60 Kbps, which really qualifies it as a 2.5G technology, but it is not technically 3G yet," she said. "What we're looking for in 3G is speeds around 2 Mbps, but we won't see that kind of speed until 2003 or 2004 before we starting touching (that speed).

"Yeah, it's the first CDMA2000 1XRTT launch, and it's competing with the GPRS launch that AT&T Wireless is using," Smith continued, "but AT&T is launching it to a wider audience and the fact that (users) can use a cell phone is pretty significant and right now that's what people are looking for. User's aren't going to log on to this with their laptops right now at these speeds."

The pricing plans used by both companies to approach 3G billing come from an entirely different perspective, one that users need to watch before signing to a contract.

AT&T Wireless bills their users for the amount of data they download; Verizon Wireless charges users an extra $30 a month, in addition to their regular voice service. Both strategies are flawed, and time will only prove the billing practices are the wrong way to look at charging customers.

Verizon users, even though they pay an extra $30 a month for their data service, are still charged against their normal phone contract. So, for example, when users download their e-mail or view Web pages they are losing valuable minutes from their 3,500 minutes a month program.

Most Verizon Wireless contracts stipulate 250 "primetime" minutes a month, minutes that get eaten up very quickly when downloading e-mails or waiting for Web pages to download at 40 Kbps.

AT&T Wireless users, on the other hand, are charged by the data they download. That's better than Verizon, Smith said, since you can view Web pages indefinitely once they've been downloaded. But it doesn't take into consideration spam and "push" technology (which sends users advertisements or downloads updated news), which can just as easily eat up the account book.