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Consumers shouldn't expect to spend the 2002 holidays watching the colorized version of "It's A Wonderful Life" on their wireless phones, but they could be sending their Christmas cards wirelessly this year.
The U.S. wireless industry is laying the foundation for a non-voice wireless experience promoted as useful and comfortable. From coast to coast, new networks are being built and existing ones upgraded with packetized data for always-on Internet access at speeds of 50kbps or more. It's not third generation (though the CDMA folks would dispute that), but it's unarguably 2.5. More important than the label, it's the beginning of what will eventually be streaming video; multimedia messaging; and location-sensitive, global multiplayer gaming.
Although still a couple of years behind in 3G applications compared to countries such as Korea and Japan, the U.S. is closer to being on the same page in network technology.
Last fall in Tokyo, NTT DoCoMo commercially launched FOMA (Freedom of Multimedia Access), considered by the GSM camp to be the world's first 3G network, which uses W-CDMA technology. Peak speeds up to 384kbps (averaging around 200kbps) enable streaming video with sound and videoconferencing. FOMA makes it possible to speak on the phone while viewing i-mode content or sending or receiving data.
In South Korea, SK Telecom's 1xRTT CDMA system averages 50-80kbps, peaking at 153kbps, a speed that meets International Telecommunications Union's definition of 3G. Koreans access the Internet wirelessly for graphically complex games, short messages, video clips and downloading stories to read on the daily commute. SK Telecom reports top subscriber uses as melody downloads and comics (42 percent), character downloads (24 percent), and news and entertainment (14 percent).
About the same time that NTT DoCoMo launched W-CDMA, SK Telecom began the world's first trial of 1xEV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized), a high-speed packet-data system that reaches 2.4Mbps. Under EV-DO, MP3 file downloading should drop from five minutes to less than 10 seconds. While 1x subscribers wait three or four seconds to watch a single clumsy video image; EV-DO provides streaming video.
The SK Telecom EV-DO system should be commercial by midyear — about when Sprint PCS begins EV-DO upgrading in the United States.
Verizon Wireless has begun remaking its networks with traditional 1x, a project it anticipates will require three years for nationwide deployment in all cell sites. Verizon is launching as markets are completed; Sprint PCS will go nationwide with 1x all at once in a formal mid-2002 launch.
Largely a software upgrade, 1x doubles voice capacity, handsets are backwards-compatible, and standby time improves by about 50 percent.
For TDMA and GSM carriers, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), which firmly falls under 2.5G criteria, is the first step on the path to 3G. GPRS peaks at 107kbps, with delivery from 40-60kbps. GPRS requires new hardware, software and handsets.
AT&T Wireless (in which NTT DoCoMo has a stake) and Cingular Wireless have begun overlaying their networks with GSM/GPRS and are commercial in many markets. Both carriers also say they are committed to a 2.75G step called EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution), a software upgrade producing up to 473kbps rates (150-200kbps average). GPRS enables downloading files such as Word documents and still pictures, and EDGE delivers streaming video smoothly. In November, using prototype Nokia handsets, AT&T Wireless completed the first live EDGE data call.
Carriers expect the enterprise segment to drive adoption in the U.S. Downloading large documents, accessing the virtual private network, and intranet-type functionality are likely corporate uses.
Verizon previewed 1x in Philadelphia last fall and has launched commercially. Participants in the out-of-town tryouts were large enterprise customers and developers using laptop computers and PDAs. With Sierra Wireless AirCard 555 modems, users experienced 40-60kbps throughput. Applications ranged from Internet and intranet access to instant messaging, brand-name business software, e-mail, streaming video and proprietary information services.
Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said that handsets and other devices weren't previewed because they didn't exist yet or weren't available in quantities and at price points "where customers would adopt."
This quarter, however, Verizon will introduce LG's 1x TM-910 PDA/ phone. The handset's screen has icons for editing contact lists, writing memos or playing games.
Sprint PCS is targeting businesses with its Clear Wireless Workplace, enabling 1xRTT users to send e-mail with large attachments and to transmit digital images quickly, said spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh. Clear Wireless Workplace will include ActivePhoto for transmitting digital photos, the sort of thing needed in vertical markets such as insurance and real estate.
A Ricoh RDC-i700 digital camera, a Sprint PCS Wireless Web Modem, and ActivePhoto's Intelligent Media Server software comprise the solution. Sprint's $249 Digital Link for the Handspring Visor also will have a software upgrade to support 1xRTT.
VoiceStream customers with Motorola T193 and triband P280 handsets can sign on for iStream. Three dollars a month buys 1 megabyte of access, including e-mail, calendars and address lists and American Online instant messaging at around 40kbps. For $20 to $40 per month, users also can access certain Web sites on a laptop or PocketPC-enabled devices.
AT&T Wireless offers Mobile Connection, a software/hardware package that connects laptops with the Timeport, is also available. The carrier also offers a Novatel Merlin G100 Wireless PC Card Modem at $299 to deliver GPRS data speeds up to 53.6kbps, allowing quick access to corporate e-mail and intranet sites. The company was on track at press time to extend its GSM/GPRS network to 40 percent of its covered markets by the end of 2001 and to 100 percent of its markets by the end of 2002.
AT&T's GPRS handsets include Motorola's Timeport ($199.99) and T193 ($99.99). Ericsson and Nokia phones will be added soon.
Despite the talk, most carriers seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude before going further than what wireless researcher Alexander Resources calls "near-generation" technology, 2.5G. After all, it's tough times and, as Guy puts it, "In today's economic environment, enterprises and consumers are asking, 'Do I really need this?'"
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