Hype Or Hope?

3G technology is on the horizon--the distant horizon

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year or so, you’ve no doubt heard of third-generation wireless networks, also known as 3G. Having evolved first-generation analog cellular networks, and currently implementing second-generation digital networks, carriers say 3G will offer business and consumer users unparalleled experiences compared with what’s possible now.

With data speeds of up to 2Mbps, 3G will let subscribers send and receive e-mails with attachments, download songs, purchase goods and services, and even trade pictures over mobile devices. There’s also a host of bleeding-edge applications yet to be developed but promised. But while it sounds great, even operators admit full-blown 3G networks are a few years away, with rollout not expected to begin until mid- to late 2003.

But an interim solution has arrived. AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless recently rolled out 2.5G in Seattle. This precursor to 3G offers data speeds of up to 115Kbps–faster than what’s possible today over mobile phones. AT&T says it’ll have national coverage for 2.5G by the end of 2002. In the second half of 2002, it will begin offering 3G “lite,” with speeds of up to 384Kbps, and finally, in late 2003 into 2004, the company will roll out pure 3G, with speeds of up to 2Mbps.

Analysts say 2.5G will let operators glean additional revenue from enhanced data applications, which will help subsidize the costly migration and buy them the time they need to build the infrastructure for 3G. “It’s a technology issue right now, but there’s also the issue of how quickly operators want to upgrade,” says Chris Whitely, project manager at Insight Research Corp. in Parsippany, New Jersey. “[One] of the reasons 2.5G networks are around is because operators can use software upgrades and not have to invest as much, providing a path for 3G.” However, 3G may still require a good deal of new hardware, additional towers, and probably a costly spectrum.

But fear not: 2.5G is more than talk. “What you’ll find is better content,” says AT&T Wireless spokesperson Ritch Blasi. “On the data side, because you have the higher bandwidth, you’re able to push more information over a phone or mobile device.” While you can read e-mail now, with 2.5G you’ll be able to view attachments, he says. And since the service is always on, answering a phone call won’t disrupt data connections.

While 144Kbps will be possible with 3G, it’s likely speeds will be half that due to the amount of traffic on the network and the user’s location. “We expect the average data speeds to be around 60 to70 Kbps for the first phase of 3G1X nationwide,” says Jennifer Walsh, a Sprint PCS spokesperson. Sprint will roll out next-generation services in mid-2002, beginning with speeds of up to 144Kbps; at the end of 2002, it will increase speeds to up to 288Kbps, and its last two phases, also to be staggered, will provide up to 2.2Mbps in late 2003 and eventually 3.5Mbps beyond that.

With features such as access to wireless gaming and video, the

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