dcsimg
RealTime IT News

Waiting For 3G

Third-generation (3G) wireless networks promised to be the panacea of the telecom industry. 3G was billed as nothing short of a telecom revolution, with everyone winning out: governments would get billions in their coffers auctioning spectrum licenses; wireless carriers would have a lucrative new source of revenue; and users would enjoy the rich content of the Internet with the mobility and ubiquity of wireless devices.

So far, though, for the most part 3G has been a dud -- at least outside of Japan and Europe, where it's seen some qualified success. For U.S. customers, waiting for 3G has been somewhat akin to what Vladimir and Estragon experience in "Waiting for Godot": They've waited so long, they've forgotten what they're waiting for.

"The early hype was you're going to get an experience similar to what you have on your desktop, and that's just not going to happen," says Frost & Sullivan analyst Brent Iadarola. "That's not going to happen even five years from now."

Sprint's Nationwide 3G Play
In October, Japan's NTT DoCoMo rolled out FOMA, the world's first commercial 3G network, boasting packet-based receiving speeds reaching 385 Kbps.

In the United States, 3G has arrived fitfully and later than promised. A landmark will be the rollout of Sprint PCS' nationwide 3G network, which the company promises will happen by the end of the summer. Sprint's network will finally give the United States a national data network with burst speeds of up to 144 Kbps and average speeds from 50 to 70 Kbps.

While it will be far slower than the 2 Mbps speeds that the industry touted, Sprint's 3G network could heat up the market for wireless data services.

"What Sprint is going to be offering this summer is going to be close to 3G," says David Chamberlain, an analyst with Probe Research. "Sprint covers a lot of cities, if you're going to have voice coverage you're going to have data coverage."

Sprint's network rollout is the slowest of the major U.S. wireless carriers, but it will be the most complete. The other leading wireless carriers -- Verizon Wireless, VoiceStream, Cingular and AT&T Wireless - have chosen to construct their 3G networks piecemeal, which Sprint points out has left their networks a hodgepodge of connectivity.

"There's the question of when nationwide is not nationwide," says Sprint spokesman Dan Wilinsky. "Some companies are claiming nationwide [service], but they're leaving out markets like Atlanta."

Industry watchers agree that Sprint's network reach is a huge selling point. In a recent poll of enterprise wireless customers by Gartner Group, 73.5 percent ranked complete coverage as the most important factor in choosing a wireless carrier.

"In the long run, one of the problems here is AT&T and Verizon are building out incrementally," says Giga Information Group analyst Lisa Pierce. "Until a good percentage of your network is up, customers aren't going to pay $100 for something they can use 30 percent of the time."

Where's the Demand?
Still, Chamberlain and other analysts remain skeptical about near-term demand for the networks, particularly among the enterprise sector that's banked on to lead adoption.

"We were saying if you build it they will come since 1994, and nobody's come yet," he says. "I don't know if more speed or more bandwidth will change this."

Wilinsky disagrees, saying business customers have shown great interest in Sprint's 3G service. "We see less education needed on the business side," he says. "On the consumer side, one of the largest challenges is to educate [consumers] about the advantages."

Forecasts bear Wilinsky out, in the long term. According to Strategis Group, the mobile data market will increase from 5 million subscribers last year to 172 million in 2007. In-Stat/MDR expects the number of business wireless data users to grow from 6.6 million at the end of 2001, to more than 39 million in 2006.

Pricing 3G services is another nettlesome problem for the industry, analysts say. Sprint won't reveal its pricing plans, but Frost & Sullivan's Iadarola says carriers will have a tough time convincing consumers and businesses to spend hundreds of dollars on new handsets, on top of hefty monthly service fees.

In January, Verizon Wireless launched the first U.S. commercial 3G network, called Express Network, in select areas like Silicon Valley and the Northeast Corridor. The Express Network's data plans run from $35 (for 150 minutes) to a hefty $100 per month (unlimited).

Sprint has yet to divulge its pricing plans, but it expects to experiment with both bucket plans for a set amount of megabytes of data and unlimited use.

"Your average consumer isn't going to understand what he's going to get with one megabyte of data," warns Iadarola. "I think the carriers need to define what that gets you."

But analysts still say price points needs to come down for widespread adoption to take hold.

"There are very legitimate applications" for 3G, says Giga's Pierce. "But the idea the whole world is willing to pay $100 a month, nah."

No Longer The Belle of the Ball
A further dash to the high hopes for 3G is the growing popularity of 802.11 wireless local area networks, which already offer wireless connectivity that dwarfs 3G. With 802.11b, or Wi-Fi , users can expect data speeds of up to 11 Mbps, practically light speed compared to the 144 Kpbs top speeds promised laptops and PDAs by Sprint's 3G service.

Despite industry projections that are still robust in terms of future growth, carriers are stuck with the huge costs of building out the networks and paying for the spectrum. As subscriber growth stagnates, carriers are left with the unhappy prospect of 3G services not filling the gap.

"The majority of carriers realize voice will make up a majority of revenues," says Gartner Group analyst Michael King. "They're not looking for this to be the dominant revenue source, but they're looking for it to bump up the RPU [revenue per user]."

"I don't expect it to be quite the same as the years and years it took for people to adopt wireless phones," says Giga's Pierce. "I do think it will take some time, because, especially for business applications, you have to integrate the wireless device with the server back in the office and a wireless portal is necessary."

Sprint's Wilinsky says 3G will catch on quickly, since customers' imaginations will be captured by functions most people never thought of having, such as taking a digital photo with a phone and sending it to a friend.

"There's a real wow factor, and it's not a temporary wow factor," he says. "When you go there, you don't back."