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3G Americas Focuses On UMTS Vision

3G Americas, a coalition of North American digital wireless phone carriers and vendors, announced Thursday its support of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) Forum's vision for a worldwide interoperability standard.

Not a moment too soon: unlike the rest of the world, much of the 3G deployment throughout North America is based on code-division multiple access (CDMA) technology, a technology incompatible with Europe's network.

Most of Asia and Europe have based its 3G technology on the global system for mobile communications (GSM), making the promise of an international digital wireless phone network a lot harder to achieve.

The largely U.S.-sponsored 3G Americas hopes to rectify the situation with its letter of understanding to the UMTS Forum, which draws on the support of the other to promote GSM and, ultimately, UMTS support in North America.

UMTS is linked with IMT-2000, an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) standard for 3G communications, and is the next step up the evolutionary ladder for GSM, general packet radio service (GPRS) and time-division multiple access (TDMA) technologies.

Dr. Bernd Eylert, UMTS Forum chairman, said the agreement penned Thursday will help spur the overall development and migration from today's mainly-2.5G wireless phone networks to 3G.

"By working with 3G Americas we will strengthen the global promotion of 3G by providing a combined voice to educate the market over a wide geographical area," he said. "We will work together to discuss and develop 3G strategies that are of particular interest to both organizations and that are mutually beneficial but will continue to work independently of each other as well."

Despite their status as the second- and third-largest digital wireless phone carriers using the GSM and GPRS platforms, Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless are the only two carriers in the U.S. focused on the technology. Most people recognize the term CDMA2000 1x, when it's linked with carriers Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS , and commonly refer to it as 3G.

On a global scale, GSM is the most popular of 3G technologies. According to a Strategis Group study last year, there are 450 million GSM-based phone subscribers in the world compared to a paltry (in comparison) 82 million CDMA-based wireless phones.

Use of CDMA2000 1x is going to keep North America out of the worldwide loop when wireless phone cells start coming together. That's bad for business travelers on both sides of the ocean: North American travelers using their CDMA-based 3G phone will be unable to use Europe's GSM-based networks, and vice versa for European travelers to North America. (Caveat: CDMA is compatible in Asia, however.)

For carriers, that means no lucrative international roaming fees to charge its customers. According to research firm Cahner's Instat, that's going to keep companies like Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS out of the expected $29 billion in revenues global roaming is expected to bring in 2005.

"Global roaming capability is becoming more important as international travel becomes more prevalent," said Instat Analyst Ray Jodoin.

This is where 3G Americas comes in, its officials said. Convergence and interoperability are the most important issues for the coalition, a top official said, and working with UMTS Forum will accomplish that goal.

"We share similar aims and objectives including improved industry confidence and visibility in migration to 3G," said Chris Pearson, 3G Americas executive vice president. "Though 3G Americas is focused on the GSM evolution in North, Central and South America - global interoperability is essential for providing a successful third generation deployment."

AT&T Wireless and Ericsson are two members of the 3G Americas group, and both are firmly committed to 3g via GSM in North America. Officials at the two companies announced Wednesday the launch of a trial 3G UMTS system in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2002, a project expansion from the first UMTS voice called made by the two in February.