3G Tower of Babel

Regulators and manufacturers seek common language

Waiting for a new wireless phone that lets you fire off pithy text messages to your pals or transact serious business with a few touches to the keypad? Dont hold your breath.

All signs indicate that a full rollout of third-generation (3G) wireless technology in the U.S. will be slowed by government miscues, technical inertia and the lack of a global transmission standard.

A passable level of 3G wireless network coverage should launch in parts of Asia later this year, followed by Europe in 2002. Americans will have to be satisfied with half-way measures until 2003 or 2004.

Even then, some operators arent sure consumers really need the bandwidth boost promised by 3G and are sitting tight with services they can deliver on existing networks.

Easy as 1-2-3

First-Generation (1g) wireless carried voice only over analog networks using Frequency Division Multiple Access. Second-generation (2G) systems arrived in the 1990s and were powered by Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) in the U.S. and global system for mobile communications (GSM) in Europe. The new systems are digital and carry both voice and data.

Using techniques to compress and interleave three communications links over a single frequency band, 2G technologies, which also include Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), power most of the mobile phones used today. Nearly 75 percent of the 500 million handsets in use worldwide use GSM, though none of the GSM handsets in the U.S. ride the same spectrum used in Europe and Asia. The next generation, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System for the rest of the world, or cdma2000 for the U.S., brings us to 3G.

2G networks support limited data connections; in Europe, adults have followed a trail broken by teen-agers quickly adopting Short Message Service (SMS), which allows up to 160 text characters to be displayed on a telephone screen.

"In September 2000, over 10 billion SMS messages were sent," says Nokia spokeswoman Cherie Gary. But few of them originated in the U.S. Because competing wireless networks have adopted competing transmission standards, U.S. operators cant support messaging beyond their system borders. 3G technology should help solve the problem of competing transmission standards.

"The consolidation of standards is moving forward," says Mark Tharby, vice president, wireless Internet at Nortel Networks. "Europes standards are moving to Asia, and even to the U.S. The European standard should become the global common standard."

Tharby predicts that the U.S. will have caught up with new network deployment by the time 3G service is ubiquitous in Europe and Asia, no sooner than 2004.

Gear makers, anticipating the delay, have rolled out wireless base stations that currently support 2G and 2.5G clients, and require only a software upgrade to reach 3G capacity, says Ed Keible, chief executive at Endwave, which provides the electronic plumbing to move data from the base station to the telephone carriers switch using high-speed radio systems.

Oozing toward 3G, all manufacturers — and every standard — offer some method of supporting packet data and higher throughput than is available with a pure 2G system. General packet radio services offers packet-data rates of 56 kilobits per second to 114 Kbps — plenty of bandwidth for simple Internet transactions.

Brian OShaughnessy, vice president of wireless technology at Bell Mobility, wonders if we really need the 144-Kbps to 2 megabit-per-second capacity the expensive 3G equipment upgrade might deliver.

Bell Mobility offers wireless browsing to customers, mostly in Ontario and Quebec. And though system upgrades will boost network speed and capacity, "95 percent of people wont use anywhere near the high-data throughput 3G provides. Our mobile Internet browser runs over 14.4-Kbps links today and needs only about half that bandwidth," OShaughnessy says.

Barrier 1: Spectrum

However, until both spectrum and standards barriers fall, U.S. operators are only guessing.

In the U.S., a considerable amount of spectrum that could be used for 3G is tied up, either because of auction delays or because much of the bandwidth is already being used by the government — especially the military — television broadcasters or other private concerns.

"It was difficult getting spectrum away from the military the last few years in the Clinton administration," says Brent Weingardt, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C., communications law firm Bennet & Bennet. "It may get easier with President Bush, because theres a new proposal out to compensate government users for taking over their spectrum."

In the interim, the Federal Communications Commission says that theres no regulation preventing companies that already hold 1G and 2G licenses from switching to offering 3G services on the same frequencies. There is some 220 megahertz of that spectrum already licensed in the U.S., says Diane Cornell, assistant bureau chief of the FCCs wireless bureau.

"Theres enough spectrum for the short term," Nortels Tharby says. "But well need more."

There are three major chunks of the airwaves in line for specific 3G use that wont be available for license until at least late this year, and some not until 2006 or later.

Two of those chunks have been in use for years: They are currently the home to two sets of UHF TV broadcasters, those on channels 60 to 69 and those on channels 52 to 59. The 60-to-69 band was earmarked for transfer from broadcasters to data operations in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the licenses were to have been auctioned early this year. But the FCC, at the request of several potential bidders, postponed bidding on this 700 MHz of spectrum until September.

Even after that auction, broadcasters arent required to vacate those channels until 2006 — or even later if the adoption of digital TV hasnt moved fast enough. So successful bidders for any of the TV-controlled frequencies would have to wait years to begin 3G service. Even then, none of the TV-occupied frequencies overlap 3G frequencies in the rest of the world.

The most attractive spectrum — in that at least half of it overlaps 3G offerings in Europe and Japan — is a series of blocks set for auction in September 2002. But that spectrum is occupied by the Department of Defense, "multi-point distribution" operators and instructional TV stations.

If We Build It, Will They Come?

Endwaves Keible expects "Real 3G products in Asia in 2003 because we already have the base stations rolling out. Korea is leading, but China will roll out faster because they have no wireline access or infrastructure," and wireless will provide the main phone service in many areas.

By the time full-on 3G does arrive in North America, in about 2004, Bell Mobilitys OShaughnessy says the market will be split between users of telephony-enabled personal digital assistants and PDA-enabled phones.

"We figure about 75 percent of users will look for low-cost phones with some extra services," says OShaughnessy. "The power users want a more upscale phone with more information and functionality. Perhaps theyll have a wireless PDA synched to the smallest voice device possible."

Bell Mobility tracks its Mobile Browser customers online movements. "About half go to e-mail portals with a Web interface, a quarter use it for financial transactions, and 10 percent for directory information like sports, weather and phone numbers," OShaughnessy says. "Last August we launched entertainment applications like jokes, trivia and games, and went from zero percent customer use in early August at the introduction to 14 percent of the users using these applications in September."

The irony doesnt escape him. "Wireless phones and PDAs have always been about productivity," he says, laughing. "Now theyre about killing time."