UMTS 2000: A Glimpse of Tomorrow
By Justin Ried, Mon Oct 16 00:00:00 GMT 2000

The UMTS Congress? annual trade-show in Barcelona brought together major players from all sides of the mobile Internet industry. Each company scrambled for the attention of the press with technology announcements, flashy promos and freebies. Just what was all this about?

Let's make this clear to begin with: UMTS 2000 was not a consumer show. If you're looking for grandiose end-user product and service announcements, you'll have to wait for COMDEX or CeBIT. If, however, you're a technology nut trying to catch a glimpse of tomorrow, or an industry executive checking up on the competition, then you came to the right place.

As I entered the Catalonia Palace of Congresses in Barcelona, the enormity of the event became obvious. Even though it's not a consumer affair, the sheer size was quite impressive. Present were nearly 100 exhibitors including infrastructure and terminal manufacturers, network design and testing agencies, semiconductor and antenna makers, you name it - if they could help you get your mobile connected, they were there.

The Participants

The big names had the big booths, as you might expect. Ericsson touted their booming infrastructure business, claiming to have secured deals with seven 3G license winners, while in negotiation with seven more hopefuls in auctions not yet underway. NEC announced the deployment of Europe's first UMTS network on the Isle of Man, a tiny island in the Irish Sea.

Siemens was showing off their UMTS solutions by planting them around and in the center console of a new Mercedes convertible. Embedded in the dashboard was a small circular device (about 10cm around) that contained a tiny TFT display presenting real-time directions to and from various tourist traps in Barcelona. Pretty neat. But when I asked the presenter just what kind of technology powers the device, she mentioned the full-sized Pentium laptop we couldn't see. I then asked if and when Siemens might bring this marvel to market and was told, "Sometime in 2002."

Motorola showcased the Internet speed of laptops with GPRS phones connected to them - but found the connection to be very erratic. Trying to load yielded mixed results - with the phone pulling down 23kbps the first second and then just sitting there the next, dead in the water. When I inquired about the erratic connection, the problems were dismissed as being a server-side issue.

Panasonic demonstrated an impressive working prototype phone in their upcoming SanDisk (SD) product line. The phone had a large active-matrix color LCD running a Java-based demonstration sequence showing off Gameboy-style games, an MP3 player and mobile messaging applications on its crystal-clear screen. It also used industry-standard memory cards for storage of up to 64 megabytes.

Schlumberger Test & Transactions showed off the first Universal Subscriber Identity Module (USIM) smart card. The first functional card to fully adhere to 3GPP standards will help network operators get out of the gate early in the race to develop UMTS services. Supporting legacy SIMToolkit-based services, the modular card can be used to create value-added services, such as m-commerce, or personalized services, such as a personal mobile portal, stored on the USIM.

On the software side, IBM announced that most Domino server applications were now WAP-enabled. You can now check your email, or the status of a collaborative project while on the move - a boon to mobile professionals.

Nokia announced their mPlatform solution for operators, a server-side application that allows the consumer to customize mobile content. Need to find out where you and your loved one should eat tonight? Your mobile can tell you, and it'll tell you only what you like - based on the preferences you've set. Want to go to the movies? It'll make suggestions according to your taste, and it'll pay for your tickets at the same time.

One of the hottest topics in software was compression technology to be used in video conferencing. Demonstrations of MPEG4 at 64kbit/sec (within 3G's expected real-world performance) produced beautiful, 15 frames-per-second video on a four-inch square display. representatives whispered that they had been working on a video compression technology that allows video conferencing to take place over today's 9.6kbps GSM networks. Their claims were impressive, even if they didn't have the technology on display.

Waiting for Tomorrow

UMTS 2000 was a bit like peeking though a keyhole at tomorrow. I could see the glimmering plastic, technology-filled toys right there in front of me, but couldn't play with them just yet. It quickly became obvious why - not because the technology itself isn't ready - but because in order to realize third-generation services, handset manufacturers and operators must cooperate on a higher level than ever before. The technological development can proceed on its own, but standards and regulatory issues must be solved before the networks can go up.

Operators looking to re-coup those massive 3G license bids have plenty of motivation, and according to standards bodies like 3GPP, they appear to be making headway. Intermediate technologies like HSCSD and EDGE are ready to be rolled out in parts of Europe and Asia, with a clear path to UMTS on the roadmap.

Gone for now are the days of an all-for-one and none-for-all cutthroat market philosophy. In order for everyone to succeed in making UMTS the next big thing, they need to cooperate in creating the universal platform on which future applications can be built. Once that's out of the way, the application development race will be on and it'll be back to business as usual...

With an eye on the horizon and a wet finger to the wind, Justin Ried writes about mobile technology for TheFeature.