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

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
  • 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

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.

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