Bob's Byte: 3G: Confusion Reigns
By Bob Emmerson, Mon Aug 07 00:00:00 GMT 2000

(August 7, 2000) Interested in a new career? Try brain surgery. Too easy? Try making a clear and concise case for 3G to the people who matter - the ones who pay the phone bills

Right now the industry and the media have been hyping up a 2 Mbps wireless wonderland. Delivery dates are vague and since we only have 9.6 Kbps right now (14.4 on some networks) that figure is almost unbelievable. It's also a myth - 2 Mbps is a theoretical transportation speed that will not be reached at the application layer, which is the only one that matters.

Access is also a shared resource, but let's put technology issues aside for a moment and look at upcoming applications. Right now one can only imagine what these 3G applications might be, think about the devices that will be employed, and also wonder where users will be when they need them.

For example, the comms industry tends to ignore the fact that road warriors have notebook PCs as well as PDAs and mobile phones. When they want to download large files it will be to a fat client device. And most times the need will come in a business environment such as a conference center or an airport. By the time 3G is rolled out these locations will have wireless 'hot spots' that enable access to IP networks. Rates here are already over 10 Mbps and set to go much higher in the future. We can therefore anticipate dual-mode PC Cards, which recognise whether the air interface is UMTS or IEEE 802.11.

Third-generation cellular is going to give us better transfer rates and the moving-around speed of 384 Kbps sounds pretty good compared to what's on offer at the moment. But EDGE can deliver data at the same rate, so why do we need 3G?

The answer is very simple.

The market has no overwhelming need for a next-generation service. It does, however, want something better than low-speed, circuit-switched data and its long connection times. A 2.5G packet-switched service running at 50 or 100 Kbps is fine for e-mail and the kind of lightweight apps that run on thin client devices. The market also wants and needs this kind of service today, along with the devices.

So, who does need 3G? Another simple answer: the carriers. GSM has been a spectacular success and spectrum is a scarce resource. More is needed in order to keep up with demand and the new allocation boosts network capacity by around 200%.

That's the reason why 3G is so important and why operators are prepared to pay enormous amounts of money for a licence. It's not about meeting market demand for mobile multimedia. That will come; it's almost inevitable, but don't hold your breath.

Define Your Terms

Voltaire: "Before we converse we must define our terms." Good advice.

So far we've been talking about the W-CDMA version of 3G. This was meant to be a global standard but it has turned into political fudge. The air interface has now been cast in concrete but the US already uses this part of the frequency spectrum. The ITU has put a brave face on this development and talked about the third generation coming in different flavours, but they cannot disguise the fact that there is no global standard.

This means that the CDMA part of the industry is going down a different route. The TDMA operators in the States cannot get W-CDMA spectrum so they would seem to be out of the race. However, they can implement EDGE technology relatively easily, so TDMA hype in the States is based on data rates of 300 Kbps.

In the GSM community EDGE is positioned as an interim solution, so it carries the 2.5G label. However, that would be commercial suicide for the TDMA carriers, so they feel obliged to position EDGE as a 3G service. Technical purists might have a problem with this marketing move, but if real 3G (whatever that is) cannot deliver 2 Mbps then what is the difference to the end user? They are both offering static data rates of over 300 Kbps.

Another Fine Mess Department

John Dvorak writes a regular column for PC Magazine. Mr Dvorak is a highly regarded consultant and columnist, i.e. he knows his stuff. In his May 9th column, Mr. Dvorak refers to "Another fine mess." The mess he's referring to is the 3G scene in the States and the confusing figures that were "tossed around at the recent Wireless 2000 conference." Dvorak was confused at the disappearance of 2 Mbps, a figure that has been hyped up by the industry but since dropped because EDGE is now being 'repositioned' as 3G.

If somebody as informed as John Dvorak cannot follow these antics there is not much hope for Joe Public. Even worse is the fact that authoritative US magazines are widely read in Europe and the rest of the world. This means that readers receive contradictory information; they also end up being confused, and a confused market doesn't buy. It waits.

Bob's Byte is a regular column on TheFeature. Bob Emmerson observes and writes on the wireless industry from his home in The Netherlands.