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On the Road to 3G

New products move toward mobile broadband, but the grand 3G vision may still be years off.

The promise of wireless broadband has been tantalizing mobile mavens for some time now. Cellular providers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular, AT&T, T-Mobile, and, most recently, Nokia, have been baiting these masses by releasing a spate of products and services that they call 3G. This “third generation” of cellular technology, after previous waves of analog and voice-only digital services, is supposed to combine voice with broadband packet data transmission delivering fast Web surfing, streaming video and audio, multimedia messaging, and other services. But while the radio technologies that American carriers have installed are technically 3G, the services are more akin to dial-up Internet than broadband.

The International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency charged with developing and managing worldwide industry standards, defines levels of performance for 3G networks. According to the ITU, in a high-speed train, a 3G connection should support data rates between 144 and 384 kilobits per second, three to ten times faster than a typical dial-up connection. At 60 mph in a car, a user should receive data at 384 to 512 kilobits per second, as fast as DSL or cable. A pedestrian should have 2 megabits per second, fast enough to download an entire word processing program in 10 to 15 seconds.

But many vendors advertise 144 kilobit-per-second rates, even for a stationary user, and say that they meet the ITU specifications. Nokia’s new 6650 phone only boasts a 128 kilobit per second connection speed. “I agree [these rates] are on the low end, but it is 3G,” says Hans Leutenegger, Verizon Wireless director of network planning in the Northeast. “Verizon Wireless has been leaving it up to the standards body as to whether it’s 3G or not. If they sanction it, what am I to do? Argue with them?”

It turns out that even those data rate claims may be a stretch. Many carriers are describing their network rate as “burst speed,” meaning that the 144 kilobit-per-second rate only happens in brief spurts and not on any sustained basis. Average speeds are generally in the 40 to 60 kilobit-per-second range-as good as the fastest dial-up modems, but certainly not broadband. Some experts, like David Chamberlain, research director for wireless internet services and networks at Cedar Knolls, NJ-based Probe Research, think that by claiming the 3G badge, many vendors are simply indulging in semantics.

“[The vendor offerings in the U.S.] are actually 2.5G networks,” Chamberlain says, referring to the transition between previous voice-only digital wireless and 3G services. “Saying it meets the bottom of the criteria is like saying if it has four wheel transportation, it’s a Bentley.” Not all the vendors play word games: according to Chamberlain, South Korea-based SK Telecom clearly labels its technology-the same used by Sprint PCS and Verizon-as 2.5G.

This toying with technical definitions may simply end up confusing consumers. For example, Verizon is currently testing a 384 kilobit-per-second service in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore region. When eventually rolled out, the system could provide the beginning of real 3G services. By then, many consumers might pass it up, assuming they have already seen the latest and greatest.

Vendors seem to have taken partial note. Although some marketing materials, particularly press releases, still use the 3G terminology, companies are already de-emphasizing the talk of speed. “We have chosen a course which focuses directly on the applications and what you can do,” says Chip Novick, vice president of consumer marketing in the PCS division of Sprint. And, ultimately, Chamberlain agrees. “What difference does it make?” he asks. “It’s a question of what sorts of services you can get.”

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