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Generation Hopping

Getting a wireless handset to tap into the Internet takes some finagling, because just about everything on a wireless device is diminutive compared to a PC-memory, processing, power supply, keypad and screen. In addition to the problems of engineering the individual devices, there’s also the vexing issue of enabling the dozens of different models to talk to each other. To attack that problem, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and (formerly Unwired Planet) teamed up in 1997 to craft a new standard, called wireless applications protocol (WAP). The goal of the so-called WAP Forum was to develop a universal, open specification to bring the Web to the tiny screen. They succeeded in many ways. More than 100 companies are participating in the WAP Forum; a growing number of servers and handhelds incorporate WAP 1.1. One result, observes Yvonne Verse, a WAP Forum board member from Motorola, is that consumers can now buy any device and not worry about compatibility.

Surfing the Web through a handheld is just the latest phase in a rapid technological development that began with analog networks, which are still common in the United States outside of congested urban markets; these are what garden-variety cellular phones use. The so-called second-generation networks now common in densely populated areas traffic in digital bits rather than analog waves. Subscribers to second-generation networks benefit by more secure conversations, better battery power management and services such as caller ID and messaging. More recently, WAP has made possible access to Web sites with a level of security adequate for many consumer transactions. The screen on the handheld that Denso is manufacturing in California, for instance, shows icons for Sprint, America Online,, Yahoo, Fidelity Investments and Bloomberg News. That little screen is now extremely valuable real estate.

Although Web access and commercial transactions are now eminently possible on a handheld, so far the big winners from the second-generation networks have not been consumers but service providers. Indeed, the pressing reason for 2G deployment was that digital code could be transmitted more efficiently over airwaves, so carriers could serve six to eight times more talkers within a given cell. Suddenly 1,000 customers became 8,000. And Nortel Networks believes the new generation of wireless infrastructure can reduce an operator’s cost dramatically-from 37 cents per megabit in 1999 to 4 cents per megabit in 2004. Data services, though, have been something of an afterthought.

Thanks to more capable electronics for handhelds, communications companies are scrambling to deploy so-called 2.5G (for generation 2.5) networks more attuned to the world of data. In earlier networks, whether analog or digital, each call creates a circuit that reserves a channel between two parties for the entire session. The 2.5G devices are the first to use Internet-style, packet-switched networks; they send bursts of data only when needed. Because these devices don’t hog an entire circuit, they can be “always on.”

And the 3G networks coming soon will open new vistas in wireless bandwidth. Today’s digital wireless handsets typically handle around 14.4 kilobits per second-the speed of home computer connections nearly 10 years ago. The 3G systems will leave that in the dust. 3G will provide 144 kilobits per second for people in moving vehicles and 384 kilobits per second for pedestrians, along with a blazing 2.2 megabits per second for fixed office environments (the faster you move the harder it is for the handheld to sort out the signal). Such speeds will allow wireless transmission of rich multimedia material. With more capable devices and networks, a user can listen to a song while she checks e-mail or bank statements. Tourists will be able to send snapshots or videos wirelessly to loved ones direct from the scene. In essence, we can all be television correspondents filing real-time reports from the field.

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