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Wireless articles:

 The Wireless Web: DoCoMo's i-mode Leads the Way
 3G: The Coming Revolution in Wireless
 1,2,3 G! Evolution
 The 3G Solution
 It's a 3G World
 The Wireless World
 Going Mobile: Work in the Wireless Age
 Handset Heaven
 CommunicAsia2001: The Future Today

The Wireless Revolution
 1,2,3 G! Evolution
by Pamela Weintraub

The key to 3G is speed the ability to transmit and receive digital data at rates of about 2 million bits per second, more than 35 times faster than today's fastest dial-up personal computer modems and more than 200 times the speed of most current handheld wireless data devices. Today's crazy quilt of incompatible wireless standards prevents most mobile phones from working in far-flung areas of the world. The developers of 3G technology hope to create a single, unified global standard known in Europe as the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, or UMTS.

To understand the 3G future, says Ericsson's Gunnar Liljegren, it's important to grasp the underpinnings of cell technology, including the older 1G and 2G. Until the late 1970s, mobile telephony was virtually impossible due to a fundamental problem: technological limitations confined wireless phone calls to a small area known as a cell, covered by a single base station, or radio tower. Single cells couldn't service a big enough area to make the business viable. The moment a user left the area of a given cell for another, the signal fell apart and the call came to an end. Just as important, the individual user could access the system only from a designated cell tower; when the user "roamed" outside the cell area to the vicinity of another tower, it became impossible to recognize that account.

It was the new technology of computer-controlled switching that overcame these problems, enabling the first generation of mobile phones to reach the market: mobile networks could automatically switch radio waves from one cell to the next, keeping phone calls intact as users moved around. "Today you can start in New York and then go to L.A. or even London, and the system will find you," Liljegren says. "The computer-controlled switches were as pivotal to the cellular industry as the transistor was to electronics and silicon was to computers."

By the early 1980s, first-generation systems had rolled out in Europe and the Middle East. Though composed of a hodgepodge of technologies from one region to the next, 1G systems all shared the same essential handicaps: more popular than anyone had predicted, they were hampered by inefficient use of the designated spectrum, and by analog technology that made it easy for eavesdroppers to listen in.

Up and running by 1990, second-generation systems, based on digital technology, were far more robust, efficient and private. Today they offer a host of features including voice mail, stock trading and text messaging, as well as e-mail. But although improved, the 2G systems failed to anticipate the extraordinary changes ushered in by globalization, increases in computing power and the Internet. "All you needed to do was look at the trends in fixed telecommunications systems," says Liljegren, "to see where cell systems fell short."

Indeed, wired phone lines transmitted so much data that this application now eclipsed voice in terms of revenue and demand. To keep up, wireless would have to deliver data, too and not just text, but also graphics and multimedia.

Designed to be faster and more efficient than 2G systems, 3G systems are meant to provide true intelligence, enabling navigational capacity to set the compass for users who might want directions to use city subway stations or country roads. Not only would 3G need to be fast, it would also have to work in sync with the protocols that already powered the World Wide Web. Finally, 3G would have to strive for a level of integration never before seen in the mobile-phone universe: instead of varying from locality to locality, systems would need to be more or less uniform from one region to the next.


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