Its time to face the fact that the U.S. wont see third-generation wireless. Ever. Well remain on our island in the high-speed, mobile, multimedia network spanning the globe.
Todays globetrotters must rent a variety of phones to keep connected as they move from one continent to another. In the future, theyll need only two — one for the U.S., and one for the rest of the world.
Our governments inability to designate and clear spectrum for next-generation services prevents the wireless industry from untangling the knot of multiple, incompatible networks. Unlike our European and Asian counterparts, we wont see big chunks of spectrum put on the auction block for 3G because the bureaucracy here moves at a snails pace and we have far less potentially usable spectrum.
All is not totally lost, though. Current operators will upgrade their networks to handle higher-speed data transfers. Those networks will let users do things like check e-mail, receive information services, access some Web sites and corporate databases at slow, though not miserably so, speeds.
In addition, independent operators will build higher-speed wireless data networks. They may use unlicensed frequencies or cobble together any spectrum they can get their hands on. The networks may carry data only — like Cingular Wireless Interactive network, but with greater bandwidth — and they wont be designed to cover every inch of ground in the country. These operators may try to use proprietary standards or open technologies such as 802.11, a short-range wireless networking standard. These higher-data-rate networks can be used for downloading large e-mail attachments or, potentially, videoconferencing.
The Holy Grail will be handsets that can operate on any of those networks and switch from one to the other — without the user knowing — based on such criteria as price, signal strength and service offering.
Efforts are already being made in this direction. Eric Brewer, chief scientist at Inktomi, last year discussed successful experiments that transferred a wireless data connection from one network to another incompatible network without losing data.
The Wireless World Research Forum — a consortium of leading vendors including Alcatel, Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens — also surfaced recently to work toward developing devices that roam across networks. The group calls this progress fourth-generation, a term that many of us may shudder to even consider in the midst of the current 3G drama.