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Lead Third generation debate rages across wireless industry



Europe and Japan Closer Than U.S. in Adopting 3G

Get a group together to talk about wireless telecommunications and the debate is bound to stir.

Just when do we reach this much-talked-about turning point, the one called 3G?

Cell phones and networks are headed toward their third generation , or 3G , with computer-like features that make them more than devices for talking.

While analog wireless phones could be considered first-generation equipment and today’s digital phones the second generation, some argue that new handsets and services make up a third generation that Americans can use today.

Others say the American market will have to wait between two and four years for 3G to emerge.

Partisans from both sides agree Europe and Japan are further along than the United States in adopting 3G.

So where are we?


– 3G Devices

Martin Dunsby is someone who can see the 3G debate from both sides.

Dunsby is a partner with Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta, and he should have been speaking from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association conference in San Diego.

That’s where he had been headed the morning of Sept. 11.

He got as far as Texas.

His flight was unexpectedly diverted there after its crew learned of the East Coast terrorist strikes. So with air travel halted until the next day, he spoke by phone from a Houston hotel.

The stuff that wears the 3G label can be separated into three “buckets,” Dunsby said. They are devices, applications and networks.

The first bucket contains 3G devices: “cool handsets” as Dunsby calls them. They have color monitors, video capability, advanced messaging capabilities and advanced games. They retail under the names Blackberry (from Research In Motion) and Smartphone (from Kyocera). Microsoft is working on software called Stinger for such devices, which combine the capabilities of mobile phone handsets and personal digital assistants, such as the Palm Pilot.

The Costa Mesa-based CDMA Development Group reports there are two dozen models of 3G handsets available now.

About the same number are expected by the end of the year. The group did not specify where such handsets are distributed.

These use the Code Division Multiple Access, or CDMA, technology pioneered by San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc.

Manufacturers like LG Electronics, Motorola and Samsung make the handsets. It’s also possible to give wallet-size or laptop computers access to 3G service by installing special cards in the devices. Companies like Novatel Wireless create such cards. All companies have a presence in San Diego.


– 3G Services

Dunsby’s second bucket contains 3G services. They include text messaging, which is “very big in the rest of the world,” he said. They include the ability to buy things with a mobile phone, an activity called mobile commerce or m-commerce.

They also include the ability to receive “rich messages” which carry animation or videos with them. And they include games involving more than one person.

These two things, advanced devices and advanced applications, have a “chicken and egg” relationship, Dunsby said. Each drives interest in the other. What’s more, it’s a relationship that will cause an observer to wonder which should, or will, come first.


– 3G Networks

The third bucket in Dunsby’s analogy contains 3G networks.

Partisans trying to define 3G differ on whether this third item really matters. The average user, meanwhile, can’t see whether it matters or not , because it is literally invisible.

At the center of the conflict is the frequency of the radio spectrum that 3G networks will use.

From some people’s points of view, Dunsby said, 3G means “everything’s new.” That includes the radio spectrum the devices will use to communicate.

In the United States, the spectrum earmarked for 3G is now used by television and the military , who may be slow to leave it, according to some reports.

That doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm for new things among the marketing people at Ericsson Wireless Communications Inc. in San Diego. The former Qualcomm unit makes CDMA infrastructure components.

CDMA technology uses so little radio spectrum that U.S. carriers can offer 3G services on their existing networks, said Wendy Fulk, vice president of marketing and communications for Ericsson’s San Diego unit.

And 3G services , such as video and audio on demand , are available here and now, the executives said.


– Availability in Question

Services tailored to the geographic position of the user are possible, said senior marketing manager Colleen Wade. So is m-commerce.

So is the possibility of receiving video of your child on a handheld computer like Compaq’s iPaq, which takes its feed from a surveillance camera in a day care center.

Ericsson’s San Diego operation tries to focus on applications that are “not too far away,” Wade said.

Likewise, Qualcomm executives have made public statements that 3G is available today. Those executives may have encountered both allies and foes at a panel discussion called “3G: Fact or Fiction” at last week’s telecom conference.

Third generation wireless is here today and will be widely available in North America next year, said Roger Deeringer of Lucent Technologies.

The United States’ 3G services should begin in mid-2003 or 2004, said Tom Faulders, chairman, president and CEO of the consulting firm LCC International, Inc. of McLean, Va. His definition of 3G, he added, was not the one circulated by Qualcomm or by carrier Sprint.

Panelists warned against attaching too much significance to the maximum data rates advertised by vendors, saying the networks will not operate that fast. They said there is a lot of hype surrounding the 3G issue.

The same session saw a Federal Communications Commission executive give a telling response to a young man during a question-and-answer period.

Robert Pepper, chief of the FCC’s office of policy and planning, told the young man he “may have a gray beard” by the time the television industry abandons its current spectrum to clear the way for 3G networks.

And until that spectrum clears, it looks as though North America’s 3G debate will go on.

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