Generation gap

If there’s anything slower than transmitting data over early cellular phone networks, it’s the transition to the higher-speed networks known in the trade as third-generation, or 3G.

Since the late 1990s, the mobile phone industry has talked about 3G. As with many new technologies there was lots

of debate about standards. There was also speculation about whether customers actually wanted or needed the mobile data transmission capabilities 3G would provide. The technology’s proponents argued that while it wasn’t clear what the applications would be, they would emerge once the capability was available. If you build it, they will come, in effect.

It’s just taking a long time to build it.

Third-generation wireless services are available across Canada today, by some definitions of the term. By other definitions, what we have today is “”two-and-a-half-generation”” or 2.5G service that doesn’t quite live up to the original bandwidth promises made for 3G. It’s far from clear when — or even whether — the kinds of speeds once talked about will appear.

Today’s digital wireless data services are divided into two camps. On one hand is CDMA 2000 1XRTT, a service offered by the major incumbent telephone companies — Bell Canada, Telus Corp. and Aliant Inc. — through their mobile-phone businesses. Commonly known as 1X, it has a theoretical top speed of 150 kilobits per second (Kbps), though Jim Senko, managing principal for wireless data solutions at Telus, says real-world performance is typically about 100 Kbps.

No service in canada currently qualifies as 3g

In the other camp, the standard until recently has been General Packet Radio Services, or GPRS. Toronto-based Rogers Wireless Communications Inc. and Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc. both offer GPRS. It has a theoretical top speed of 115 Kbps, but Mansell Nelson, vice-president and general manager of wireless enterprise solutions at Rogers, says typical real-world performance is 35 to 40 Kbps.

Last month, Rogers completed its rollout of GPRS’ successor, called Enhanced Data rates for GPRS Evolution (EDGE). David Neale, vice-president of new product development at Rogers, says EDGE can hit peak speeds above 200 Kilobits per second (Kbps) without compression, and expects normal performance to top 100 Kbps.

When talk of 3G wireless began in the late 1990s, it was widely defined as offering data transmission speeds of at least 115 Kbps while moving at high speed, 384 Kbps for pedestrian access and up to two Mbps while stationary.

By that definition, no wireless data services available in Canada today qualify as true 3G. Granted, Bell Canada maintains that by some people’s definition 1X is a true 3G technology — and if it is, then EDGE presumably is too. But the grandiose promises of 3G’s early years have not been realized.

And will they ever be? “”Never”” is a word best avoided when making predictions about technology, but it seems fairly safe to say, “”not any time soon.””

Neale says there is a next step — Wideband CDMA or Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). The technology is still in the design phase, he says, and could be ready by 2006 — but it will be introduced when commercially viable. When that will be is anyone’s guess.

Some customers would be glad to see faster services. Nerds on Site Inc., a London, Ont.-based IT service company, finds Telus’ GPRS service works well for exchanging information with its mobile technicians, but Loralee Wettlaufer, the company’s chief administrative officer, notices delays when surfing the Web. “”I still find it when I use it to be better than dial-up at home,”” she says, “”but certainly not running at the speed of regular high-speed.”” And Rob Carthy, project manager for customer service at Pitney Bowes of Canada Ltd., says GPRS works fine supporting basic terminal emulation for about 350 users at his company, but it’s too slow for surfing the Web. The company might look at EDGE for some IT staff and power users, he says.

The question is not whether faster and faster wireless data transmission will become available — it will. “”Wireless high-speed broadband is a certainty,”” says Jeffrey Kagan, a telecommunications industry commentator in Atlanta. But will it rely on the cellular network?

“”I think the world has passed (3G) by a little bit,”” says Iain Grant, managing director of telecommunications industry consultancy Seaboard Group in Montreal. Grant says 1X, GPRS and EDGE have their uses — workers such as couriers and highly mobile real-estate agents who need access anywhere but not loads of bandwidth will continue to find them useful, for instance. But for many people, alternatives such as Wi-Fi or 802.11 wireless hotspots are filling the gap 3G was originally expected to occupy.

Kagan agrees.

“”Wi-Fi’s popularity was I think a by-product of the wireless industry over-promising and under-delivering 3G,”” he says. “”If they rolled out 3G earlier, I don’t think Wi-Fi would have been this big, pervasive technology. I think it would have remained in homes, in offices, not in hotspots — but now that it’s there, it’ll stay there.””

Dual-mode devices could search for wi-fi connection

The most-used Wi-Fi standard today, 802.11b, has a theoretical speed of 11 megabits per second. Of course real-world performance is lower, and hotspots are often limited to a megabit or so per user due to bottlenecks in the backhaul connection to the Internet, but even a megabit is roughly an order of magnitude faster than the cellular network can deliver today.

That and the growing availability of Wi-Fi technology in notebook computers is leading many observers to suggest that for many people, hotspots may be the best option – and that those who really need connectivity anywhere will want to use Wi-Fi whenever possible and fall back on 1X or EDGE only when Wi-Fi is unavailable.

“”If you are a mobile provider now, you may want to start looking at a more holistic paradigm,”” Grant says. Dual-mode devices could search for a Wi-Fi connection and use it if they find it, resorting to the cellular network otherwise, and the customer could get a single bill.

In fact the major carriers have feet in both the mobile telephony and the Wi-Fi camps and seem to be thinking along just those lines.

Admitting that Wi-Fi has the dual advantages of higher speed and — before long — virtual ubiquity in notebook computers, Neale predicts a trend to using Wi-Fi where available and shifting to 1X or EDGE the rest of the time. “”You’ll start getting applications that produce the bandwidth equivalent of least-cost routing,”” he says.

Some cities experimenting with metro-area wi-fi

The major carriers are already working on plans to let their customers pay for hotspot use on their phone bills, eliminating the nuisance of providing credit-card information to a sign-on screen before using a hotspot.

The major advantage 1X and EDGE have over Wi-Fi is their coverage. But despite its shorter range, there are some experiments with using Wi-Fi to blanket large areas. An example is Fred eZone, a network of Wi-Fi hotspots covering downtown Fredericton, N.B., and several other parts of the city.

Don Fitzgerald, executive director of Fredericton’s economic development office, says the e-Zone covers about 30 per cent of the city now and “”we’re going to do the entire city.”” It’s free, and on average 30 to 40 people were online at a time from the public launch in November to this spring. “”I would expect to see those numbers rise quite dramatically as the sun comes out,”” Fitzgerald adds.

Fredericton was able to build its eZone economically because the city had already invested in a city-wide fibre-optic network, which provides the backhaul connections for its Wi-Fi access points. Without this, Fitzgerald says, the project probably wouldn’t have been viable. “”The cost to do this solely for Wi-Fi would be very challenging for this municipality and I suspect any municipality.””

If this idea caught on, Wi-Fi might become widely available in cities, making it the broadband technology of choice for urbanites. While that would leave a niche for cellular technologies that offer coverage outside the city limits, it might be difficult to make a business case for faster cellular data technologies any time soon.

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