Wireless Systems Design

Do You Have 3G? If Not, Why?

3G speed is fast enough, but let's kick it up a notch anyway.

I am trying to get a fix on how many cell phone subscribers actually have a 3G handset. I must admit, it is a difficult task. No collective figures seem to be available. Market studies have future estimates and some limited past data but nothing current. It is always tough to pinpoint a moving target. Only the carriers probably know for sure who their 3G customers are. But what about you? Do you know?

I really have to wonder how many subscribers actually know what 3G is. Most don't even know what their cell phone technology is, whether it is Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) or Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA). To the subscriber, it is not a matter of great concern, as long as the phone is reliable and does what they want. Who cares how it is done? Anyway, 3G cell phones generally achieve a data rate of up to 2 Mb/s for the purpose of allowing the phone to access e-mail and the Internet at a reasonable speed and to do other advanced data and multimedia functions like music, video and game downloads.

There are three flavors of 3G around the world. In the US, the most dominant is Qualcomm's CDMA2000. Their EV-DO, Evolution-data only, technology is very widespread at this point and some versions of it can achieve a data rate beyond the 2 Mb/s threshold. The Rev A and Rev B versions, which are just coming on line, are even faster with download speeds of 3.1 and 6.2 Mb/s, respectively. Both Verizon and Sprint Nextel are supporters of this technology and have already implemented upgrades to many of their base-stations to handle 3G speeds.

The other major technology is Wide-band Code-Division Multiple Access (WCDMA ) as defined by the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project), an organization that develops and maintains the ITU's cell phone standards. It is the 3G cell phone standard of Europe, Japan and a few other places. The speed is a data rate of 2 Mb/s, but it is the upgrade path from the basic world wide 2G GSM standard. GPRS gave GSM its initial data capability but is pretty slow (way less than 100 kb/s) so it is only good for limited email or Internet access but okay for messaging. GPRS and its upgrade, EDGE, are 2.5G standards. EDGE boosts the data rate up to about 384 Kb/s but achieving less than half that is the norm. Also, it works pretty well for e-mail. From GSM/EDGE, the upgrade path is WCDMA.

AT&T (formerly Cingular) and T-Mobile are the two big GSM vendors in the US. Both have EDGE for sure but only AT&T has any real 3G WCDMA. 3G is available in most of the larger cities and a great deal of that is used in modem cards that plug into laptops. There are some WCDMA handsets out there but they are rare; I, for one, have only seen a few. I have actually seen more EV-DO handsets than WCDMA. We are apparently slow to adopt new technology. WCDMA can only achieve about 384 kb/s in reality, but the upgrades takes care of that.

A 3.5G technology is now being rolled out so that WCDMA systems can remain competitive with EV-DO systems. A system called High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) is an upgrade to WCDMA systems that touts data rates from about 1.8 to 14.4 Mb/s under ideal conditions. High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) will boost the uplink speeds from 384 kb/s to a blazing 5.72 Mb/s in later upgrades. HSDPA and HSUPA combined create HSPA+, which should produce download speeds to 42 Mb/s, theoretically. Anyway, I see that HSDPA is available in some cities, but who is using it and for what?

The third 3G system is called or Time Duplexed-Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access (TD-SCDMA). This officially recognized system is pretty much exclusively used in China; it is not likely to be used elsewhere. China also has some WCDMA and EV-DO, but with the TD-SDCMA system standard complete and base stations and handsets being built, it is likely to become THE 3G of China.

The big question here is: Do we really need 3G? We have it anyway, as technological developments tend to give us the capability long before we need it or figure out what to do with it. Business as usual in the electronics business, as you well know. My guess after extensive observation is that few of us actually need 3G speed. We still mostly talk on the phone, message or do e-mail—all operations that work well even with 2.5G technology. I can say this . . . there are times when I really wished for one of those 3G card modems for my laptop when a Wi-Fi hot spot was not available. But, that ends up being a separate $70/month cell phone account separate from your phone account. I haven't been that desperate yet.

With more video and other entertainment and multi-media services, 3G will undoubtedly continue to grow. When customers buy new phones or when new customers sign up, they will be getting 3G phones. Even then, if cell phone TV does become popular, it is not the 3G phone that makes it possible. Remember, cell phone TV is going to be mostly broadcast, point-to-multipoint to a separate TV receiver in the handset. It won't come by way of the 3G network.

I am about to renew my cell contract and get a new phone. It will be a 3G phone even though I know I don't need the high data speeds. If I want email or Internet access I still go to my laptop for that, and I am not the only one who prefers that. The real e-mail addicts will continue to thumb their BlackBerrys and Treos on 2.5G or 3G networks. Whatever . . . So while most of us still don't need 3G, it is inevitable for all of us. It will improve data rates if we do need it and most 3G technologies will simply serve their other purpose of creating more capacity for a given network upgrade. Nevertheless, that has not stopped the industry from aggressively working on 4G. Several systems are in the works now (Ultra Mobile Broadband, the 4G standard beyond EV-DO and Long Term Evolution of the 3GPP), but no formal standards have been adopted yet, unless you call mobile WiMAX (802.16e) a 4G technology (like many do). Look for 4G OFDMA standards to emerge in the years to come with phones available beyond 2010. Who knows for sure?

In the meantime, drop me a line and let me know what you do with a 3G phone if you have one or tell me why you don't have one yet. It is just a suggestion, but go get a 3G phone even though you don't need the capability like I suspect few of us do. It will support the industry and move it along so we can have the 4G phones we do not need sooner.


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