Standardize This
By Jeff Goldman, Fri Jul 06 00:00:00 GMT 2001

As wireless technology moves forward at rapid pace, the coordination of standards on a global scale becomes all the more complex - and all the more crucial.

Want to escape to a desert island, without missing out on the nightly news?

3G might have the answer: the high-bandwidth technology promises to allow international travelers to watch CNN on their mobile phones. But global interoperability is a key issue. If travelers had to buy a different phone for every country they entered, who would make the investment?

At the FT World Mobile Communications Conference in London last week, Denny Strigl, Verizon Wireless' President and CEO, implored supporters of competing 3G technologies to unify towards a single global standard.

"There's enough engineering expertise around the world to bring together the two competing camps," Strigl said. "They should be able together to deliver what the customer needs and what the operator needs."

On the same day, at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York, Bill Barr, Verizon's Executive Vice President and General Counsel, made a somewhat contradictory plea.

Barr urged the US Federal Communications Commission to avoid regulating the broadband industry, suggesting that a lack of unity is the best way to encourage the market. "If we tear down these regulatory barriers, I promise you we'll see a surge in pent-up growth," he said.

Within hours of each other, Strigl and Barr had highlighted the key arguments on opposite sites of the standards debate: a complete lack of standards can cause crippling interoperability issues, while excessively rigid standards can limit competition. As the wireless industry moves towards 3G deployments, the need for a careful balance between those two sides is more pressing than ever.

Conflict through the generations

The first generation (1G) of mobile phones arrived with the analog systems first implemented in the early '80s. But the manner of those implementations varied worldwide. In the United States, the FCC guaranteed uniformity of 1G deployments by mandating the North American Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS) standard. In contrast, Europe took a more lenient approach in terms of regulating deployment, which resulted in a broad range of conflicting 1G standards, country by country.

Dominant among Europe's 1G standards were the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) standard and the Total Access Communication System (TACS). Meanwhile, in Japan, the Nippon Telephone & Telegraph (NTT) and Japanese Total Access Communication System (JTACS) standards were introduced in 1979 and 1991, respectively.

When the increasing popularity of mobile phones demanded more efficient use of bandwidth, 2G digital systems were developed. In implementing these systems, Europe and the US reversed their approaches to standardization.

Perhaps in response to Europe's experience with 1G standards, the Group Speciale Mobile (GSM) was formed to develop a pan-European standard for a 2G network. The new standard, the Global System for Mobile Communications, used Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), which divides data transmitted into timeslots. The technology kept the acronym GSM, and in 1989, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute took over the maintenance of the system.

In the US, on the other hand, the FCC decided that an open market which allowed standards to compete would foster innovation. Comparative chaos resulted: Digital Advanced Mobile Phone Service (D-AMPS) was the first to be adopted, and was soon joined by a number of conflicting standards including an incompatible version of GSM (PCS1900) as well as Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which uses code to differentiate data transmissions.

A babel of standards

Very roughly, current 2G systems break down to four main standards on a global scale: GSM, D-AMPS, CDMA, and Japan's Personal Digital Communications (PDC) system. Europe and parts of Asia are dominated by GSM; the US is split between D-AMPS, CDMA and GSM; and Japan uses PDC, CDMA, and a TDMA-based standard called the Personal Handyphone System (PHS).

No 2G system is fully interoperable with the others; and to complicate matters even further, a number of users continue to employ analog systems as well. In broad terms, the range of current 1G and 2G standards worldwide is as follows:

Not a unified global standard, by any means. And as countries work toward third generation (3G) deployments with greatly increased bandwidth capabilities, it's already becoming clear that 3G may bring its own challenges as well.

Moving up in the world

In 1998, the International Telecommunications Union called for proposals for IMT-2000, the 3G standard intended to support interoperability for a broad range of wireless applications. Basic criteria included global compatibility; mobile data rates of 144 Kbps; fixed data rates of 2 Mbps; and integration of mobile devices. In the end, three main 3G standards emerged.

Wideband CDMA (WCDMA), supported by the GSM Association, seems to be dominant. The standard is part of Europe's Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, or UMTS, and should allow for far more global interoperability than can now be found with 2G devices.

At the same time, Qualcomm is leading the push for a competing standard, CDMA2000, with the backing of many industry leaders; and China is implementing its own standard, TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access), which claims to offer far lower equipment costs.

Regardless, Andy Watson, Technical Advisor to the UMTS Forum, is optimistic about the opportunities presented by 3G, noting that it's much better to build a standard around the services you want to deploy than to do things the other way around. "Unlike 2G, where services were specified within the standard, central to the concept of 3G are services capabilities and toolkits," he said. With the right amount of planning, a globally unified 3G technology could pack quite a punch.

At the same time, of course, there are enormous financial challenges and technical complications currently facing 3G, which have some analysts pessimistic about its prospects of ever being fully realized at all. With billions of dollars already invested in the necessary spectrum, the technology may just be far too expensive for the average consumer in the end.

And while analysts worry about 3G, a number of transitional "2.5G" standards have come into prominence, including GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), EDGE (Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution, an enhanced version of GPRS and a stepping stone to WCDMA), and HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switched Data)- not to mention such so-called 4G technologies as WLAN.

A recent Merrill Lynch report suggested that 2.5G may well be a far better fit for the average consumer than 3G. "The cost/benefit analysis and therefore business case for 3G appears to be eroding," the report stated. "If 2.5G can deliver an always-on, 9.6 Kbps, packet-switched cellular system for a $3 billion upgrade cost, the $250 billion needed for an always-on, 1 Mbps, packet-switched 3G cellular system looks like it could become the next HDTV-a neat technology with no customers."

If any of these technologies gains a powerful hold on the market, it could make it harder to persuade consumers to switch to 3G-rendering the standards wars all the more complex once again.

Can't we all just get along?

To improve the chances of a successful implementation for WCDMA, the Third Generation Partnership Project, or 3GPP, was founded in December of 1998. The project was backed by a broad range of regional standardization bodies, including Japan's ARIB, Europe's ETSI, T1 in the United States, TTA in Korea, TTC in Japan, and China's CWTS. A similar group, 3GPP2, was formed soon after to support similar cooperation regarding CDMA2000.

Last month, the GSM Association announced the development of the M-Services Initiative, a set of specifications designed to facilitate development of 2.5G GPRS as a transition technology to 3G. And backing up similar efforts are a number of standards-influencing bodies like the Mobile Wireless Internet Forum, or MWIF.

The MWIF is a non-profit group working to focus infrastructure providers on deployment of IP-based wireless Internet services. The organization's members include just about every leading name in the industry, including Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Qualcomm, and many others. Tim Clifford, MWIF's Vice President of Marketing, takes a long-term view of the current situation, contending that the standardization battles 3G is facing are just par for the course.

"There's a lot of posturing going on, but more importantly, it's a very vibrant area," Clifford said. "It's on everyone's radar screen as the next big thing. So one would anticipate lots of this kind of activity, but all the pieces are going to fit together: the handset makers are moving forward, the operators are making the investment in spectrum and in network infrastructure, there's hundreds of thousands of people working on applications and content. It seems inexorable in all the activity."

Competition or regulation

So in the long run, what's the real value of a broad-based standard? There are solid arguments on each side: strong standards can offer greater interoperability and improved economies of scale, while weaker standards can encourage competition and innovation.

In a January 1999 address to the European Institute Roundtable on Multimedia and Telecommunications, US Federal Communications Commissioner Susan Ness neatly summarized the differences between US and European approaches to 3G standardization.

"The U.S. supports an approach that allows wireless service providers to select whatever standards or technologies they deem best for delivering 3G services to consumers," she said. "On the other hand, the EU has adopted a decision that requires 3G systems operating in the EU to comply with standards established by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute."

She went on to claim that overly regulated standards hurt the consumer by limiting competition, by prematurely locking in a standard that may not the best one, and by limiting a country to one standard without yet knowing whether or not it will be adopted by the rest of the world.

Cocky American or perceptive visionary? With the current interoperability issues facing 2G technologies, it's hard to take a purely negative view of regulated standards - but a careful balance will continue to be necessary as the world moves into 3G and beyond.

This wraps up Mobile World Week on TheFeature. Thanks to all our readers and contributing authors. Let's meet in the discussion forum to continue the discussion on Mobile World.

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.