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Don't hold your breath, but wireless telecommunications networks with wireline-like data rates are on the horizon in the United States. In fact, many carriers plan to implement these new networks within the next several months.
Some of the nation's largest wireless carriers-Alltel, AT&T Wireless Services, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS and VoiceStream Wireless-plan to launch over the next year high-speed 2.5G packet-data service, which is an interim step between the current second-generation networks and full 3G. Other carriers are being quieter about their plans, partly for competitive reasons, and partly because of technological concerns.
All of the U.S. carriers, however, will be Johnny-come-latelies to their counterparts in Europe and Japan. British Telecom's CellNet GSM subsidiary, for example, launched its 2.5G network in September. It uses GPRS (general packet radio service) technology, which provides packet data at 115-Kbps data rates. CDMA carriers in Korea and Japan have or will soon operate high-speed networks using the CDMA 1XRTT standard, which delivers packet data at a peak 144 Kbps, a shared data rate.
Japan's NTT DoCoMo plans to launch the world's first full 3G network next spring using the W-CDMA standard.
The multitude of high-speed technologies is one reason the United States has fallen behind in the 3G race. Another reason is the lack of spectrum for full 3G, which the FCC hopes to resolve by next summer. In the meantime, many U.S. carriers are focusing on 2.5G technologies that can be implemented in their existing networks without taking channels off-line.
Here's an update on carrier plans:
TDMA carrier AT&T Wireless is committed to a GSM/TDMA technology called EDGE (enhanced data rate for global evolution). What makes EDGE attractive for AT&T is that it is on the evolutionary path to convergence between TDMA and GSM technology. That convergence will occur under the 3G W-CDMA standard.
AT&T also has been building a parallel GPRS test network this year, but starting in late 2001, AT&T will deploy EDGE radios in its network and will have a "substantial" EDGE launch in 2002, senior VP Kendra VanderMuelen said. EDGE provides a 3G Internet Protocol data rate of 384 Kbps, again, a shared date rate that realistically is much less than that per user.
AT&T has said it will continue to operate separate TDMA-voice and EDGE-data networks in its existing spectrum until it uses upcoming auctions to acquire "greenfield" spectrum in which it will implement W-CDMA 3G technology.
Sprint PCS, meanwhile, has said it plans to implement the CDMA 1X standard by the end of 2001. The carrier staged a full-scale trial of 1X during the summer in a partnership with Samsung Telecommunications America, Qualcomm and 3Com.
CDMA and the cdma2000 standard provide a relatively easy upgrade path for the carriers via CDMA 1XRTT and then 3XRTT. Like 3G cdma2000 and W-CDMA, the latter provides mobile data rates of about 384 Kbps and, under ideal conditions said by some carriers to be highly unlikely, 2 Mbps in fixed stationary applications. It also expands network voice capacity by six times over 2G CDMA.
The Sprint test, conducted at a Sprint test facility, used Samsung 1X handsets, which are commercially available overseas. The trial demonstrated data rates of 144 Kbps with 35 full-rate voice calls conducted simultaneously, the carrier said.
Sprint said it expects to begin a rollout in the second half of 2001. The 1X upgrade nearly doubles voice capacity.
For its part, Alltel announced a contract with Motorola for CDMA 1X infrastructure and software that will be installed in 2001 in the carrier's New Orleans and Baton Rouge markets. Commercial hardware and software will be available to Alltel in the third quarter of 2001 following trials ending in the first quarter. Motorola will also supply 1X handsets.
VoiceStream, the nation's largest GSM carrier, acquired some GPRS contracts when it purchased Omnipoint earlier this year. Omnipoint, whose footprint is in the Northeast, was known for its technological aggressiveness, signing GPRS contracts in 1999.
When VoiceStream launched its wireless Internet service earlier this year, it said it would have GPRS working in "key regions" by the end of the year, presumably in the old Omnipoint footprint that includes New York and New Jersey. It hasn't detailed its plans beyond that.
VoiceStream also said it will have GPRS in all its markets by the middle of 2001, giving it a several-month time advantage over other U.S. carriers. It has been testing GPRS handsets from manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Wireless and Sagem, as well as laptop PC Card radiomodems from Novatel Wireless. The latter would offer data rates of 56 Kbps.
Cingular Wireless, cobbled together through the SBC-BellSouth joint venture, is a marriage of minds but not of technology. Cingular uses TDMA across much of its footprint but has extensive GSM holdings through SBC's earlier acquisition of Pacific Bell Wireless. It even has some CDMA left over from the 1999 SBC acquisition of Ameritech, but the company is converting them to TDMA.
During a Bear Stearns conference in New York, Nov. 2, Cingular chief technology officer William Clift said the company would launch GPRS in first-half 2001, presumably in the carrier's GSM markets, but he also pointed out that the time frame is "driven by terminal availability."
Cingular plans to put its first EDGE market online in fourth-quarter 2001, presumably in its TDMA markets, "with a full introduction of commercial service in 2002." Clift did not state whether GPRS markets would be upgraded to EDGE.
Analyst Larry Swasey of Allied Business Intelligence, however, believes Cingular will bring its diverse networks together technologically by implementing EDGE, just as AT&T is doing.
For its part, Verizon Wireless has been testing 1X in several locations in its old Bell Atlantic footprint. The carrier, using different vendors, said it has been pleased with the trials. Although it has not formally announced its rollout plans, Verizon is anticipating a limited 1X launch in 2001 and might even beat Sprint PCS.
Brad Smith is data/IP editor of Wireless Week, a sister publication of TWICE.