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Defining 2.5G and 3G Networks - Has Wi-Fi stolen the 3G show?

Defining 2.5G and 3G Networks - Has Wi-Fi stolen the 3G show?

For as much hype as there has been around the deployment of third-generation - or 3G - wireless networks, the move has had many holding their breath. However, with the transitional 2.5G networks largely rolled out, the first pieces of the 3G puzzle are now being put in place.

There's a fair amount of confusion surrounding what constitutes true 3G networks versus existing technology, which performs at what amounts to 2.5G levels that are a half step above second-generation networks but not quite 3G. The Federal Communications Commission defines 3G by the three-pronged capability to support circuit and packet data at 144 kilobits per second (Kbps) or higher in high-mobility (vehicular) traffic; 384Kbps for pedestrian traffic; or 2 megabits per second (Mbps ) or higher for indoor traffic.

Although the current 2.5G networks that average between 20-80Kbps are noticeably faster than the 20Kbps (or less) networks they're replacing, they're still significantly off from the speeds that define 3G.

CDMA2000 1xRTT vs GPRS
In North America there are now two distinct wireless camps, says William Clark, research director in mobile and wireless at Stamford, CT-based technology advisory firm, Gartner, Inc. On one hand is the GSM path favored by Europe and Asia, not to mention AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, and not surprisingly, Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile. The 2.5G data side of GSM is GPRS, progressing to EDGE and W-CDMA networks.

The other path sees second-generation networks evolve to a bulky list of abbreviations that are often intermingled. This family of next-generation CDMA-based technologies is collectively referred to as CDMA2000, though this does not describe one technology per se; the first step in the CDMA evolution comes in the form of CDMA2000 1xRTT, sometimes referred to as CDMA2000 1x, CDMA 1x, CDMA 1xRTT, or similar combinations thereof.

Although CDMA 1xRTT is considered to be part of the third-generation CDMA family - Sprint for example refers to their CDMA 1xRTT network as 3G1x - its actual speeds of 40-80Kbps are still a bit of a 2.5G stepping-stone toward real 3G speeds.

The true 3G incarnation of these CDMA networks is CDMA2000 1x EV-DO and CDMA2000 1x EV-DV, abbreviated respectively from "Evolution Data Only" and "Evolution Data and Voice" and also subject to the vagaries inherent in 3G CDMA naming. CDMA 1xRTT is the chosen path of Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, which have largely covered their networks, as well as Alltel, which has launched its upgraded service in Tampa, Cleveland, Akron, and Canton, Ohio, and plans to extend it to additional markets.

The most noticeable difference between CDMA 1xRTT and GPRS is in data speed. GPRS achieves actual throughput speeds of about 20-40Kbps while CDMA 1xRTT offers speeds double this range. In an effort to boost these speeds some carriers also offer special software to their customers; Cingular Wireless, for example, utilizes data acceleration and caching technology that improves its GPRS speed to CDMA-like rates of 40-80Kbps.

Of the major carriers, Nextel - which utilizes a proprietary second-generation iDEN network - is the only one yet to determine whether to move to the CDMA or GSM camp, though the company is currently testing 3G technologies. However, just as other companies are accelerating speeds of their CDMA or GPRS networks, Nextel's Packetstream Gold service uses advanced compression technology that can bump transfers up to a very respectable 56Kbps, a significant improvement over the company's typical 14-20Kbps.

The Significance of New Networks
The new speeds afforded by the 2.5G and 3G networks mean that entire new classes of mobile applications are now possible. However, as so many mobile solutions are based on sending a few lines of text - a delivery address for example - the additional speed makes only a marginal difference. The potential of faster networks will enable more white-collar applications such as efficient remote interfaces with CRM and ERP systems.

Unfortunately, stepping up to a new network means investing in new equipment, be it a phone or network card. The good news is that the new equipment will be backwards compatible.

Also, just as customers will notice quicker speeds, they will also likely notice the frustration common with the gradual rollouts associated with new networks where major metropolitan areas are generally blessed with decent coverage while the rest of the map is a black hole for coverage.

3G Deployments
The major carriers are nearing completion of their 2.5G networks if they have not already completed them. Of course, as is the way with such things, as soon as one phase is completed, it's on to the next. Verizon Wireless has thrown its hat in the ring with its commercial deployment of third-generation EV-DO service in San Diego and Washington, DC, this past fall.

Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless's main companion in pursuing a CDMA-based 3G network, plans to bypass the EV-DO step and move straight to EV-DV with peak speeds anticipated to be near 3Mbps. Therefore, Sprint PCS will be utilizing their current CDMA 1xRTT network until the beginning of 2006 when the company will start commercial deployment of the EV-DV network.

The GSM side should gain momentum from AT&T Wireless's recent switch to turn on and make available its entire EDGE network of 215 million POPs (points of presence). Cingular Wireless has already deployed EDGE in Indianapolis and has plans to add additional markets; T-Mobile began deploying EDGE at the end of 2002, but has yet to announce plans to make the service available commercially. According to Gartner, adoption of W-CDMA, the third-generation's step up from EDGE, has been slow with anticipated rollouts not coming for another three to four years in the United States.

The deployment of 3G networks also coincides with the installation of 802.11-based Wi-Fi networks that provide speeds of up to 11Mbps (with 802.11b) or 54Mbps (with 802.11a and 802.11g). The big carriers are investing in and setting up Wi-Fi networks, but there is a broader market question as to whether these more localized networks with broadband speeds will make 3G obsolete before it even takes off.

"One debate that is endless is whether or not Wi-Fi has stolen the 3G show," Clark says, with respect to wireless data. Despite Wi-Fi's impressive speeds, its smaller reach presents issues.

"In terms of the efficiency of coating planet earth with Wi-Fi, it doesn't scale up as well as cellular," says Clark.

The ability to access Wi-Fi on a broad basis involves enterprises adopting it on corporate campuses while the major carriers and exclusive Wi-Fi providers connect the dots. Among these new Wi-Fi providers, it's hard to ignore the efforts of San Francisco-based Cometa Networks, which aims to have 20,000 hotspots installed around the country and is backed by marquee players IBM, Intel, and AT&T. In addition, both AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless count Wayport, Inc., as a Wi-Fi partner; the Austin company offers Wi-Fi access in 650 locations, primarily airports and hotels.

The Dark Horse
Clark says that, in addition to Wi-Fi, metropolitan wireless area networks are "a dark horse in this whole race." These companies - including IPWireless, Inc., and Flarion Technologies - provide data-only networks that may offer a workable solution for localities not covered by the traditional carriers.

Though Clark says that these companies are "on the outside looking in," he says that they will have some impact on the wireless landscape and are of particular importance to municipalities and universities that might benefit from having their own data network that could also be used to transmit voice over IP.

Despite network improvements, pricing looks to remain relatively unchanged. However, the consumer side allows the carriers to recoup some of their investment through the extra fees associated with the growing demand for add-ons like games, messaging, and camera options that are made possible by the higher-speed networks.

On the data front, costs run about $50 per month, though there is a significant pricing range between carriers. On one hand Cingular Wireless offers 13MB for $49.99 a month and Verizon Wireless offers a 40MB plan for $75. Cheaper per-MB plans include T-Mobile's 50MB plan that runs $59.99 per month, AT&T Wireless at 40MB for $59.99, and Sprint PCS with its 40MB plan for $60. Plans typically include a fee of 1¢ or less per kb of overage. Unlimited data plans are also frequently available for less than $100 per month.

Wi-Fi can be a standalone plan or included with a voice or data plan. T-Mobile, which now has 2,600 Wi-Fi hotspots through partnerships with the likes of Starbucks and Borders, offers an unlimited monthly subscription plan as a $29.99 standalone or as a $19.99 voice add-on; the alternative is a "pay as you go" plan that costs $6 per hour.

Of course for most customers, the biggest issue in subscribing to a wireless data network is not so much price and speed, but rather coverage. Therefore it's best to choose a carrier with the best service for your area; some customers go so far as to drive the areas themselves to determine which carrier provides the best coverage.

Final Thoughts
Of course, just because wireless networks are getting faster does not necessarily mean that they're always the best fit for a company.

"What most enterprises find, depending on the segment, is that somewhere between 20-70%of mobile applications don't even require wireless. They can be mobile [and sync using a landline or desktop cradle] ... so why bother with the extra cost incurred for wireless?" says Clark.

However, he adds that, "The disadvantage is that the companies that... utilize wireless speed up their cycles, speed up their efficiencies, and put the squeeze on those other companies."

More Stories By Lee Gimpel

Lee Gimpel, a former product manager with a leading mobile/wireless software and solutions company, is a freelance writer based in Virginia who writes frequently on mobile and wireless technology.

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