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Disconnect: The Problem with Wireless

As the "third generation" of wireless technology approaches, why isn't there more excitement?

Will this be the technological Summer of Love? The wireless division of telecom company Sprint certainly hopes so. The company has unleashed a massive marketing campaign designed to educate and excite consumers and businesspeople about the possibilities of its so-called 3G technology. This “third generation” of wireless transmission can now reach speeds of 144 kilobits per second (kbps), which is 10 times faster than today’s typical second-generation digital phone service. It’s expected to eventually reach speeds of 3 megabits per second (Mbps) — more than twice as fast as a T1 desktop Internet connection. The advent of these higher speeds is widely seen as paving the way for entirely new uses for cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), pocket computers, and other devices.

And yet, the American talent for marketing notwithstanding, it’s an open question as to whether Sprint can rally excitement for a technology that is both overdue and underappreciated. Most industry observers had predicted that the third generation of wireless technology would have been a fait accompli by now. Instead, while most of Europe and Asia march confidently into the wireless future, the United States stumbles along. A number of factors have slowed the rollout of 3G service, but even if all those hurdles were suddenly cleared, it’s debatable whether consumers or businesses would even notice, let alone cheer.

Some analysts believe that’s a shame. Wireless transmissions that are fast enough to beam large volumes of data quickly to anywhere could, they say, transform many aspects of American business life. According to Ray Jodoin, group manager and principal analyst for wireless technology at In-Stat/MDR: “Fast, accurate communications is vital to what most companies are all about. You wouldn’t want your accounting department using DOS-based PCs from the early 1980s. That’s where wireless is today, and businesses should be concerned.”

Companies are more likely to be confused, because wireless technologies encompass a huge number of devices, standards, and integrator issues, all of which are evolving quickly and contentiously. Sprint is devoting a large part of its marketing push to educating potential customers about the possibilities created by faster wireless-transmission rates, but also risks adding to the confusion because its claim that it is the first nationwide carrier to offer 3G services has come under fire. An arcane debate rages over what constitutes “true” 3G, with some analysts claiming that until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) awards licenses in the 2 Ghz bandwidth, carriers’ technological tweaks don’t really count: they may achieve “peak” speeds of 144 kbps under ideal conditions, but typical performance will fall well below that rate.

“It’s ultimately about having a bigger pipe,” Jodoin says. “The rest of the world has it, but we don’t.” Sprint counters that it’s going about transforming the spectrum available today from a “dumb pipe” to a “smart pipe” through a number of technological improvements, notably an underlying technology known as 1XRTT. Spectrum in the 2 Ghz range is currently used by the military and the Catholic church (for educational broadcasts); neither entity is happy about a perceived “spectrum grab” on the part of wireless carriers. There are also serious squabbles over how the FCC should auction off the spectrum, if it even makes it available. Under those circumstances, it’s no wonder that carriers look for ways to boost the capacity of the spectrum they do have available.


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