Operators agree on 3G standard

When third-generation (3G) wireless services become available early next century, users should be able to access any operator’s network with one handset, thanks to a 3G standard agreement reached last month.

Users cannot currently roam wherever they want to and expect to get digital wireless service with the same handset, because second-generation handsets work with only one of three existing wireless network technologies-Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), or Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). In Canada, for instance, Bell Mobility operates on a CDMA network, while Microcell Telecommunications Inc. runs a GSM network.

Wireless operators and equipment manufacturers had been trying to hammer out a 3G standard for some time. One standard should result in more affordable handsets, since manufacturers would have to produce fewer varieties. One standard would also ensure that no existing wireless operator’s investment in second-generation equipment would be completely obsolete when 3G networks are implemented.

3G networks have been highly touted by the wireless community, because they will support higher throughput rates than existing wireless networks. This will allow users to access multimedia services over their handsets.

The 3G standard agreement was reached in early June between members of the Operators Harmonization Group, an organization formed with the goal of forging the first global wireless standard.

What the standard does is define one handset interface that will function with multiple modes. Working with multiple modes was necessary, because no operator group (i.e. CDMA, TDMA, GSM) was willing to make its members’ existing wireless infrastructures entirely obsolete when moving to 3G.

“The big concern was that if you had one technology and someone wasn’t compatible with it, they’d be left out,” said Mike Houghton, a spokesperson for the North American GSM Alliance LLC. The GSM Alliance promotes the interests of a wide range of North American GSM operators.

Houghton characterized the standard agreement as a compromise.

“This gives us as much compatibility as possible, while still allowing a degree of competition between the various technologies to help push them all forward,” he said.

Vino Vinodrai, director of industry relations and research with Bell Mobility, said the bottom line is users will save money thanks to the new standard.

For instance, if developers and operators had to build separate 3G data applications for each wireless technology, consumers would end up footing the bill for the added expense, Vinodrai explained.

“At the end of the day, the customer doesn’t care what the technology is. They’re interested in price, quality and functionality.”

Many countries won’t see the benefits of 3G for several years, but Vinodrai said Japanese operators could begin 3G operations in 2001. The Japanese are on the leading edge, Vinodrai said, because they’re running out of available wireless spectrum and the country wants to have 3G in place for the next World Cup soccer tournament, which Japan will co-host with South Korea in 2002.