Broadband wireless is getting closer

As surely as night follows day, to use a phrase of Shakespeare’s, 3G (third-generation) broadband wireless connectivity is on the way. Along with better performance and more headroom for cell phone growth, 3G technology will also enter the scene with new pricing schemes.

Two companies that play in this field, Narus Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., and Nortel Networks Corp., in Brampton, Ont., have what some might call application-aware technology that will allow a service provider to break down wireless content for its customers into voice, data and video usage and then charge accordingly.

In a 3G world, where all information is sent in packets, Narus’s technology probes every packet and can tell what’s inside. It can also determine how long it took for that packet to arrive at its destination.

Nortel’s content-switching technology will also give those who use the technology the ability to see into the packets to determine what the application is so as to find the lowest-cost path to the closest server. And playing off the same content awareness, the Nortel technology can optimize compression algorithms to speed up the throughput of wireless calls depending on the type of content.

These “smart pipes” built into the wireless network will, according to Peter MacKinnon, vice-president of Nortel’s Wireless Internet division, allow service providers to differentiate the traffic on their networks.

Paying for QoS (quality of service) will become the order of the day in a 3G world. “Providers will offer service-level agreements [SLAs], such as Platinum service and Gold service,” MacKinnon said.

Until now, there has been no way for a wireless operator to give priority to a business user, MacKinnon said. He points out that a teenager accessing an MP3 file via a wireless network will get the same priority and performance as will a business user.

Of course, giving your better customers the better service is not new. Webvan, an on-line grocery service, offers more choices to its better customers when they view the hours-available-for-delivery window, for example.

Nortel is AT&T Corp.’s core network provider. So you can expect to see SLAs become the basis for QoS contracts as 3G gets deployed.

Narus’s technology, which can determine how long it takes for packets to arrive, can also be used by customers to monitor whether or not they are getting the service they’re paying for. And don’t discount the IT department using such application-aware technology for corporate chargebacks either. In other words, if your department is doing a lot of collaborative gaming on their cell phones, the department will pay for it.

In other 3G news, Nortel just signed an agreement with Sierra Wireless Inc. to develop wireless 3G modems in form factors usable by notebooks and PDAs.

But one nagging issue remains: All competing 3G technologies use the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) protocol. For the most part, the world is divided between Wideband CDMA – known as WCDMA in North America or UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) in Europe – and CDMA 2000. In North America, AT&T supports the former, whereas Verizon and Sprint PCS support the latter.

The only area in which the rival CDMA technologies are in sync is performance. In a stationary environment in buildings – on campus, as they say – CDMA will give users a 2Mbps pipe. In a mobile environment, where handoffs are required, CDMA slows to 384Kbps; and in a car, where handoffs are as rapid as the sequential bumpty-bump when you’re riding over a segmented highway, performance dips to 144Kbps.

But if nothing is done to ameliorate the compatibility issue “in future,” as the Brits put it, then if you have a phone that uses either of these technologies, you will be unable to communicate with those whose phones use the other. That is to say, unless you have a dual-mode phone.

Schwartz is an editor-at-large in InfoWorld’s news department. He has covered the high-tech industry for 16 years.