Unless you’ve been in a coma or other altered state for the last five years (attending Phish concerts doesn’t count), you’ve no doubt heard the term 3G bandied about by the tech savvy. The name itself is not all that special, just another acronym to make conversations with the technology literati shorter and easier to manage. What it stands for, though, is an altogether different animal, and one that has only recently begun to be tamed by the telecom industry.
3G stands for third-generation wireless, meaning the ability to use cellular signals to transmit data at certain determined speeds—generally 384 Kbps and higher. Right now, the major carriers in the United States are in the midst of updating their networks from 2G or 2.5G speeds to this murky 3G technology.
Why murky? Well, there’s more than one version of 3G technology, and some carriers and companies think their version of 3G is better than the competitions’. What follows is a sort of what’s what and who’s who rundown of what 3G is really all about.
3G History 101
To begin with, there are two basic radio systems used in the United States—and the world—for cellular communications. One, called Global Service for Mobile (GSM), is widely adopted the world over and is used by Cingular and T-Mobile. The other, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), is used primarily in the United States by Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, though it can be found in 56 other countries spanning six continents. Each has its own process for communicating with cell towers and the host networks. What this boils down to is that the two technologies have different hardware, software and logarithms
for sending and receiving calls—whether they be voice or data based.
Let’s look at GSM and CDMA individually.
Beginning in the 1980s, analog cellular telephone systems were undergoing quick growth in Europe. Unfortunately, each country created its own systems and equipment, which meant the equipment would not work outside of the country in which it was developed. Because Europe was becoming increasingly unified and people traveled to other countries regularly, country-specific cellular systems were a hindrance. Also, the relative size of each market was limited, so manufacturers couldn’t garner savings from economies of scale.
Understanding these ramifications early, the Conference of European Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT) assembled a group called the Groupe Special Mobile (GSM) in 1982 and charged them with engineering a cellular phone system that would work across all of Europe. Of course, they had to meet certain criteria, such as international roaming, spectral efficiency, low cost and good quality.
Skip ahead a few years and the European Telecom-
munication Standards Institute (ETSI) published the first part of the GSM (now standing for Global Service for Mobile) specifications in 1990. Service grew rapidly and GSM became the standard for European cellular communication systems and eventually spread into other regions, including the United States.
At the time it was developed, GSM was an unproven digital technology. The GSM committee had faith that improvements in algorithms and digital signal processors would permit the original criteria to be fulfilled. Luckily for them, advancements helped their recommendations meet the stated goals.
So how does this tie into 3G? Several kinds of 3G technologies are related to the data outgrowths from GSM technology. First came the 2G technology Global Packet Radio Service (GPRS), then the 2.5G technology Enhanced Data for GSM Environment (EDGE). EDGE data service is presently available from Cingular in the United States (see diagram for speeds and related carrier info). Next up in the GSM family of 3G is Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). An upgrade to UMTS, called High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), is next on the 3G roadmap for Cingular and many European carriers. HSDPA represents the best-of-breed, for the moment, from GSM-based carriers in terms of throughput and data speeds.
I know, I know, your head is spinning. Hold on, because we’re about to dive into CDMA.
A cellular technology originally known as IS-95, CDMA competes with GSM technology for dominance in the U.S. cellular world. As with GSM, there are different variations, but the original CDMA is now known as cdmaOne. No grand scheme by a consortium of countries lies behind CDMA’s conception. Bell Atlantic Mobile (now part of Verizon Wireless) deployed the first CDMA network in 1996, though the technology was developed chiefly by Qualcomm. CDMA is characterized by a small cell radius and high capacity, using spread-spectrum technology and a special coding scheme. It represents about half of U.S. cellular subscribers.
The first phase of cdma2000—called 1xRTT, or just plain 1X—was designed to double voice capacity and support always-on data transmission speeds. Since 1xRTT was developed, CDMA’s 3G hopes are pinned on the Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) networks being rolled out by Verizon and Sprint, which fall between EDGE and HSDPA service in terms of speed.
Qualcomm owns a substantial portfolio of CDMA patents, including many of the patents that are essential for the deployment of any proposed 3G CDMA system. Qualcomm has granted royalty-bearing licenses to more than 75 manufacturers for CDMA and, as part of these licenses, has transferred technology and know-how in assisting these companies to develop and deploy CDMA products.
What this means is that any manufacturer or carrier looking to deploy handsets on a CDMA-based network needs to go through Qualcomm and pay it licensing fees for the infrastructure, phones and test equipment. This is in direct contrast to the GSM model, which is based on a set of universally available standards.
What’s the Difference?
So why all the technical fuss? Does it really matter which technology your enterprise chooses for its 3G data needs? As with everything, it depends on what those needs and potential uses are.
John Hambridge, VP of marketing for IP Wireless, a maker of wireless data cards and components, argues that users should care about the technology. “Our data cards support GPRS, EDGE, UMTS and WCDMA and give the user the best experience they can. They can go on the network and get megabit speeds and fall back to 200Kbps speeds. Pages and files upload and download faster. The other big difference is at the cell edge. Performance is better with our technology, and you can get megabit speeds at cell edge, even in the worst conditions. It’s a pretty significant difference, especially if you’re a corporate user and use heavy-duty applications.”
Cost vs. Utility
According to a recent poll conducted by Novatel Wireless, 48 percent of executives say they would invest in 3G technology, as it simplifies Internet access on a laptop. Wireless broadband connectivity worldwide relinquishes users from the need to seek out Wi-Fi hotspots for Internet access. Speaking from experience, I know how frustrating it can be to find and access the Internet when traveling. Daily connectivity fees offered at places such as coffee shops, travel hubs or hotels (wired or wireless) range from $10 to $20 or more. If you need to check e-mail every day on a four-day business trip, you could spend in excess of $80. Compare that to the $80 monthly subscription to a 3G broadband account, and the math becomes easy to understand.
With the arrival of easy access to 3G networks across the globe, mobile professionals can retrieve corporate data stored behind firewalls through a virtual private network (VPN) connection, offering increased security, convenience and productivity that is not offered by coffee shops or hotel access points. 3G users can send and receive e-mails with large attachments, access the Internet and download files at reasonably high speeds.
“It’s widely accepted that executives often stay in contact with the office and spend time working even during a vacation period,” says Peter Leparulo, CEO of Novatel Wireless. “With this in mind, 3G broadband connectivity gives executives the most flexibility, so they can maximize the time spent with their families and choose when and where they want to have access to the Internet or share corporate data via the VPN.”
Having that access is great, but for some, $80 per month is still too steep. According to IP Wireless’ Hambridge, 3G usage “will change the way people connect to the Internet. The flipside of that is the cost. Fundamentally, the number one reason you haven’t seen wider adoption of data cards is they are still pretty darn expensive. Some corporate users will pay for them, but it’s still a premium service. Scaled service plans—for example, 512 MB for $30 per month—will open up a much wider audience because they’re not paying as much of a penalty. The percentage of users who will buy the service goes way up as the price points drop from $80 a month to $60 and $40,” says Hambridge. He also mentions that, “Forty-three percent of subscribers would ditch their DSL service and go with wireless data. To date, though, the biggest problem has been price.”
Boosting performance and making the service cheaper will help mobile professionals cross the threshold of adoption. Hambridge argues, though, that the carriers are “not just milking the market to recoup their costs. That’s where the technology supports the pricepoint.”
Aside from the all-you-can-eat service plans, enterprises interested in 3G data services should talk to their carriers about rate plans. Most business plans are modeled for 2 GB of data per user per month, which is the monthly break even. Hambridge notes, “Including everything, such as billing and customer service, costs to the [GSM] carrier boil down to $12 to $15 a month. So a $30 pricepoint is really, really good and very fair. That’s for 2 GB of data, which is right at the average for what the average DSL user ownloads—sending and downloading photos and maybe one or two MP3 files—in a month. Primarily, though, that’s for Web and e-mail usage.”
The good news for mobile professionals is that choices abound. If you need the highest-speed coverage right now, CDMA 1xEV-DO is the way to go, because Verizon already has 46 markets up and running (at the time of this writing) and many more are on the way. Sprint is beginning rollouts of its own EV-DO network late in 2005 and will have the top 60 markets up by early 2006.
If you can live with somewhat slower service right now, Cingular’s EDGE network will provide more than enough speed for average e-mail checkers. Cingular does plan to upgrade to HSDPA service in 2006, so users can expect increases in speeds and fees.
Remember that speed, price and coverage are not always the most important issues. Flexibility and compatibility with your enterprise’s backend and security are also factors to consider when choosing a 3G partner.
Now that several versions of 3G are available for mobile data users, making use of those technologies to benefit your enterprise is a discussion you need to have with your mobile users and CFO.•