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Roadmap to the Future

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
 The 3G Solution

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 compatible worldwide.

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.


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