| The 3G
When phone manufacturers, operators and other organizations
sat down to develop 3G a few years back, the first thing they
did was to discuss the issue of harmony. "Since the days of
2G, industry people around the world wanted to develop a
common system," says Ericsson's Gunnar
Liljegren. "But we couldn't agree on whose technology would be
the standard. When it came to 3G, the desire to build a common
standard was even greater." This desire culminated in the
formation of the Third-Generation Partnership Project, or
3GPP, a global group whose goal was to make 3G systems
The first thing 3GPP architects did was to consider the
spectrum – the airwave frequency that would house 3G. In
Europe and Asia, says Liljegren, the choice was clear: the
region of 2,000 megahertz (or 2 gigahertz) was available.
While higher than frequencies used before, this band would
nonetheless allow the buildout of base stations within cost.
In the United States, this frequency was already in use.
Americans would need to fit their 3G systems into the 1.9 gig
spectrum already used for 2G.
Differences in available spectrum led to incompatibility in
basic operating systems. Most 3G codes work by breaking up
speech or data into small, digitized segments and encoding
them to identify each call. A large number of users can thus
share the same band of spectrum, squeezing more digital
signals into a particular slice of radio network, greatly
increasing system capacity.
But the devil is in the detail – in this case, the arcane
coding of the different available standards. W-CDMA (Wideband
Code Division Multiple Access) was recommended by the European
Telecommunications Standards Institute for use on the
continent. Especially high in bandwidth, W-CDMA is supported
by Ericsson, Nokia and most other
European, Asian and North American telecommunications
companies. Vodafone, in Britain, and Japan Telecom, along with
29 other telecom operators, have contracted with Ericsson to
supply W-CDMA hardware for their 3G systems. Japan's i-mode
has settled on W-CDMA for its upgrade to 3G as well.
Because the spectrum required for W-CDMA is unavailable in
the Americas, 3G coding in this part of the world looks,
instead, to a related code called CDMA (Code Division Multiple
Access). A form of CDMA, called CDMA2000, would make it
possible to retrofit 2G systems for 3G capacity. It won't be
as powerful as W-CDMA, say the experts, but it will likely be
far less expensive to deploy.
For a while, the split threatened the unified global vision
of the 3G architects, and cast a cloud over the future of the
wireless Web. After all, competing standards would mean
smaller economies of scale for manufacturers. And most
disturbing, the lack of global technology would make it
difficult to power a global economy for the next generation.
President Bill Clinton and American industry were concerned
that W-CDMA would be so pervasive that CDMA2000 (the standard
that would dominate the industry in the Americas) might
receive scant infrastructure support in Europe and elsewhere
in the world, and that this would constitute a trade barrier.
Dashing off a letter to the European Commission, Clinton's
advisers – including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright,
Commerce Secretary William Daley, Trade Representative
Charlene Barshefsky and Federal Communications Commission
Chairman William Kennard – insisted the Europeans guarantee
market access to the American standard, too. The European
Union ultimately agreed that while every market in Europe will
support W-CDMA, other technologies will be supported, too. To
foster such integration, Ericsson purchased Qualcomm's
terrestrial CDMA wireless infrastructure business, including
its R&D resources in San Diego and Boulder, Colorado. The
transaction freed several patents, making it easier and less
expensive for companies to develop CDMA technology. This would
not constitute a government guarantee of uniformity, but at
least the market – and not regulations handed down from on
high – would determine the shape of the 3G universe.
Still on alert, Americans remain vigilant. But despite such
jitters, Ericsson's Liljegren believes, harmony will prevail.
Recent technical innovations, he says, will soon enable
operators to switch back and forth between one code and
spectrum and the next. "Coordination is difficult, but it will
be worth the effort," he says. In fact, he notes, additional
frequency allocated by the U.S. government in the
1,700-megahertz range could enable the European standard,
W-CDMA, to be supported in the States.