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Sprint Completes Nationwide Upgrade to 3G 1X

With the race to provide broader wireless services continuing to heat up, Sprint Thursday took a major charge, becoming the first U.S. carrier to complete a nationwide 3G 1X network upgrade.

3G , a shortened acronym for third-generation wireless networks, has long been touted as the technological link to bring true data capabilities to the mobile arena.

Although Sprint's new network will be far slower than the 2 Mbps speeds that the industry had touted since the concept of 3G was first conceived in the early '90s, the upgraded network will provide improved speed, peaking at 144 kbps, with average user speeds of 50 to 70 kbps.

Keith Waryaf, research manager for IDC notes that while these speeds may often get compared with dial-up, the user experience will be more similar to a higher-bandwidth connection. Because of the thin nature of mobile-Web optimized files, and the actual speeds of the new network generally being higher than the actual speeds of a 56k modem, which is very rarely 56 kbps, the user will be able to load pages very quickly.

Verizon Wireless, who launched the first U.S. commercial 3G network, known as Express Network, to limited areas in January, advertises transmission speeds between 40 and 60 kilobits per second with bursts up to 144 kbps. Express Network, which has now spread to approximately 300 cities, is currently aimed only at the data market, utilizing data-only devices.

"Sprint has an immediate short-term advantage on a spec-sheet basis because it rolled out nationally rather than doing it in a somewhat segmented fashion the way that Verizon has," said Waryaf. "While Verizon has a bit of an advantage because it got to the market first and has a larger customer base, whether or not that plays out in the long-run is going to be a wait and see proposition."

Sprint's new 3G 1X network, based on CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology enables the company to achieve up to double its network capacity as PCS Vision-enabled handsets are deployed throughout the network. CDMA works using "spread spectrum" technology, where every channel uses the full available spectrum, rather than assigning a specific frequency to each user.

When implemented, CDMA technology has many potential benefits, including improved call quality, enhanced privacy, improved coverage characteristics, and increased talk time.

"Sprint's selection of CDMA2000 allowed us to leverage the natural evolution of our network, providing Sprint with voice capacity improvements that alone were worth the investment to enhance our network. And with the support of our vendors," said Oliver Valente, chief technology officer, PCS division, Sprint.

CommWorks, HP, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Nortel Networks, Openwave Systems, QUALCOMM and Samsung contributed to the network upgrade, which consisted of changing out channel cards at base stations and upgrading channel elements and software, as well as adding data components to network infrastructure.

In addition to the network upgrade, Sprint has worked with Bytemobile to incorporate dynamic bandwidth optimization technology from its Macara platform on the enhanced network. The company claims that by using certain PCS Vision enabled devices, one will experience average data speeds two to five times faster than average user speeds on the enhanced Nationwide PCS Network, depending on the specific application.

Along with Sprint's upgrade, the company has introduced its new PCS Vision service, which provides devices and services aimed at taking advantage of the upgraded network. PCS Vision will include services that allow consumer to use their Vision-enabled PCS Devices to take and receive pictures, check personal and corporate e-mail, play games with full-color graphics and polyphonic sounds and browse the Internet wirelessly.

"(Sprint) has a whole slew of devices out there that are very compelling," says Waryaf. "They will be pushing those things into the consumer market and even if (a consumer) doesn't opt for that vision/data functionality, the CDMA platform provides a fairly easy migration to up that customer to just higher speed data."

While Sprint is the first to upgrade its entire network in the U.S., other parts of the world already have pushed forward with mobile initiatives based on 3G.

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

Sprint's current 2G services will continue to work as they did before the introduction of PCS Vision. Customers will not need to purchase new handsets in order to continue Sprint wireless services, unless they would like to take advantage of the new PCS Vision products and services.