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Posted: 01.01.05

3G Goes Live

After years of hype, 3G is here. If you can make a cell phone call, you can also drive down the road while online and enjoy the kind of data throughput youíd expect from DSL or cable modems. Thatís assuming, of course, that you are in one of the handful of specific service areas (although the number is growing), have a laptop with a specific interface card and pay about $80 per month. Oh, and you canít be too interested in making voice calls, because initially this new generation of cellular telephony is mostly about Internet connectivity, though the previous generation handled voice just fine.
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By Lamont Wood




As for what 3G offers, “You can have all the resources that you would have if you were at your desk, but you can have it while you are in the field, face-to-face with customers,” says Allen Boichot, a computer systems administrator at King Wholesale, a beverage distributor in Chantilly, Va. His firm uses 3G service from Verizon.

“This is the best of both worlds—we’re satisfied that it’s worth the money. I’ve heard drivers say they’d rather give up a pay raise than lose their [3G PC] card,” he added. “They used to have to come back to the office at least once every day to download and process orders, but now they can do those things while traveling. In fact, they can save 45 to 60 minutes driving time each day. Anything that they needed to do at the office they can do from home.”

Boichot continues, “If I sit down in a restaurant and start pecking, people ask about the Wi-Fi hotspot. But I don’t have to look for a hotspot. You are truly going real time, and you are taking the high-speed Internet with you wherever you go.

1G, 2G, 3G

To understand the excitement, remember that the first generation of cell phones (1G) used analog technology, and any modem connected to it was lucky to get 19.2 Kbps. Second-generation (2G) equipment upgraded to digital technology and eliminated cross-talk and fading, but the carriers probably appreciated it more than the customers since it increased the capacity, or calls, each cell tower could handle. Then came 2.5G, an intermediate upgrade with no perceptible increase in voice quality but with data speeds about equal to dial-up landline modems. Basically, 2.5G just whetted users’ appetites for 3G, the long-sought wireless broadband technology that appeared in Europe and Asia before the first service reached the United States in October 2003.

“We had a crunch in the capital markets that kept carriers from investing more aggressively in 3G, particularly as there was little demonstrated demand for the types of services that 3G would enable,” says Clint Wheelock, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, a research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. Plus, 3G cell antennas were found to have lower ranges than 2.5G antennas, requiring more towers, he adds.

Currently, among the major carriers, Verizon Wireless and, to a lesser extent, Cingular Wireless (the newly combined AT&T Wireless and Cingular) offer service, while Sprint is making plans. But whatever the deployment details, sources agree that 3G is not a fad. Since it increases the capacity of the cell towers by a factor of about three, all carriers will eventually embrace it.

Verizon Wireless

Verizon is the nation’s second largest wireless network, with more than 40 million customers and revenue of $22.5 billion. It is also (at least for now) far and away the leader in the 3G wireless space, covering at least three times more territory than the number-two contender, Cingular Wireless. Starting in Washington, D.C., and San Diego in the fall of 2003, it had 3G in 14 cities and eight airports by the time the leaves fell in 2004, adding a user base of 34 million Americans. No detailed plans for expansion of the service—called BroadbandAccess—are currently available, but spokesperson Jeffrey Nelson says that Verizon plans to double the number of people it covers with 3G by the end of 2005.

But, oddly enough, Verizon’s 3G network is data-only. No phones use it. Using a technology called EV-DO (Evolution Data Only), an upgrade of Verizon’s CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) network, the service is aimed at laptop users who want Internet access at broadband speed while on the road. If you want to make a phone call, you can use any old 2.5G cellular phone. In 2005 Verizon plans to offer handsets (and PDAs) that can make a 3G data connection, but fall back to 2.5G to make voice calls, explains Nelson.
Service is $79.99 per month for unlimited service. You must also buy a PC card for your laptop. Verizon offers the Audiovox PC 5220 card, which lists for $249, though a $150 discount is available to those signing a two-year service contract and a $100 discount to those signing a one-year contract. Similarly, it offers the Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 for $399 for a one-year contract and $299 for a two-year contract.)

BroadbandAccess’ connection speed is 300 Kbps to 500 Kbps, explains Nelson. If you leave the 3G coverage area while online, the unit will fall back to using Verizon’s CDMA network, with average throughput between 60 Kbps and 80 Kbps.

At last report, cities with Verizon 3G coverage are Washington, San Diego, Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Austin, Kansas City, Baltimore, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Milwaukee. Airports with coverage are Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW), Dallas Love Field (DAL), Houston Intercontinental (IAH), Houston Hobby (HOU), Orlando International (MCO), New Orleans International (MSY) and Jacksonville International (JAX). Detailed coverage maps are available on the Verizon Wireless Web site.

Verizon may eventually come out with alternate consumer pricing based on volume, but that has not yet been decided, Nelson adds.

Cingular Wireless

This newly combined provider, now the nation’s largest with more than 47 million subscribers, came later to the party than Verizon and so far offers 3G service in only a few leading cities, using a technology confusingly called WCDMA (Wideband CDMA) although it is really a derivative of a 2.5G technology called GSM (Global Systems for Mobile communications) rather than CDMA. Previously offered by AT&T Wireless and now falling under the Cingular Wireless bannerhead, the technology has been renamed UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), adding another acronym to the telecom stew. Cingular Wireless claims throughput for its 3G service between 220 Kbps and 320 Kbps, with bursts up to 384 Kbps.

The main point is that WCDMA/UMTS initially lets you have both voice and high-speed data on the same connection, and Cingular Wireless is offering 3G phones as well as
laptop cards.

So far, Cingular Wireless has service in six markets—Dallas, San Diego, Detroit, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle—and offers a single plan: unlimited service for $79.99 per month with a two-year contract. If you also purchase one of its Novatel Merlin UMTS PC modem cards for $149.99 (after rebate), you get a free Sony Ericsson modem card for Cingular Wireless’ EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) network, which is said to cover 6,500 towns and 220 million people. That way, when you leave the 3G service area, you can still get Cingular Wireless service, explains spokesperson Ritch Blasi. The EDGE network, says Blasi, offers throughput up to 130 Kbps.


For voice service, Cingular Wireless offers either the Motorola A845 handset for $299.99, which includes a color screen, still/video camera, an MP3 player and Bluetooth connectivity; or the Nokia 6651 handset for $299.99, which comes with a color screen, still/video camera and a personal information manager. When outside the 3G service areas, both units fall back to 2.5G connections.

Cingular, originally a joint venture between BellSouth and SBC, is conducting a technical trial in Atlanta (Cingular headquarters’ city) with UMTS. No roll-out strategy, schedule or pricing has been announced. In fact, Cingular Wireless spokespeople preferred to talk about High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), a future upgrade for UMTS that’s still under development. When it arrives—reportedly as a software-only upgrade to UMTS—it will offer data rates of 2 to 3 Mbps, peaking as high as 14 Mbps.
Sources agreed that Cingular Wireless will try to deploy HSDPA as soon as possible for competitive reasons, but Brian Pellegrini, an analyst with ABI Research, a research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y., says he does not expect HSDPA to be used in North America until after 2009, although it could arrive sooner in parts of Asia.

Sprint

This national carrier with 23.2 million wireless subscribers and a CDMA network is planning an EV-DO rollout during 2005, but further details are unavailable, says spokesperson Mary Nell Westbrook. However, handsets will be available as well as laptop cards, she adds.•



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