Wireless service providers need speed

Accessing the Internet using a wireless handheld device offers exactly the same performance you would get sitting at your desktop…back in 1993, that is.

To bring wireless networks up to speed, the leading U.S. service providers are planning major network upgrades. Carriers such as Sprint PCS, AT&T Wireless, GTE Wireless and Bell Atlantic Mobile have plans to make their networks faster, broader and more reliable, although some of the improvements are years away.

Today, wireless network transmission speeds are maxing out at between 14.4Kbps and 19.2Kbps, depending on the underlying network technology. And those speeds are just too painful for e-mail users and Web surfers typically not willing to put up with anything below 56Kbps.

Carriers are looking to upgrade their networks to what are called third-generation (3G) wireless infrastructures – those that can support speeds more than 100 times as fast as those supported today. The carriers claim business users can expect speeds ranging from 384Kbps up to 2Mbps. And with the use of wideband Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology by some carriers, the size of channels between end users and

base stations will balloon from 30kHz to 5MHz.

Business users will see capacity and speed upgrades as early as this year, but 3G services are three to five years off, said Bob Egan, research director at Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn. consulting firm.

Sprint PCS has been offering customers its Wireless Web service since September over a circuit-switched network at 14.4Kbps. But Sprint PCS customers can expect a boost to 56Kbps by year-end, said Oliver Valente, a vice-president at the company. The upgrade is not based on any of the pre-3G or full 3G standards, he said.

But Sprint PCS’ plan to increase network access to 144Kbps is based on a pre-3G specification called 3G1X, Valente said. “We will be going to 3G1X in the second half of 2001, which will increase speeds, but also improve battery performance and increase capacity from a voice standpoint on our network,” he said. Sprint PCS’ network is based on CDMA in the 1,900MHz spectrum band.

This upgrade means deploying new cards at transceivers and receivers throughout Sprint PCS’ network and allows the carrier to move from a circuit- to packet-based network.

“This is an important development,” Gartner’s Egan said. Packet-based networks are more efficient than circuit-switched nets in that they enable carriers to charge users only for the data traffic being transmitted. In addition, carriers can increase capacity on packet networks without increasing spectrum, he said.

Observers say all major wireless carriers will move from circuit- to packet-switched networks over the next few years.

In addition to upgrading its network, Sprint PCS later this year plans to offer new services for businesses that will allow mobile users to access corporate applications via their wireless handsets, Valente said.

“Customers will be able to link up to corporate intranets, access e-mail and calendar applications,” he said.

Officials at AT&T Wireless say their current combination of Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) networks are fine for handling today’s short message service (SMS) and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) services. But the company knows demand for robust applications is on the rise.

“These are low-bandwidth services. The current bandwidth conditions aren’t a problem for most business users,” said Roderick Nelson, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at AT&T Wireless. “But WAP-enabled Web sites such as portals into corporate networks are mushrooming” and will require more bandwidth, he said.

AT&T Enterprise PocketNet CDPD service users can now access Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange applications via their wireless handsets, but users are limited to 19.2Kbps. While that may be fine to receive a message, it is typically too slow for accessing a full list of customer contacts or downloading a day’s worth of e-mail.

AT&T Wireless customers won’t have to deal with slow speeds for the long term, the company said. The service provider plans to upgrade its network to support 384Kbps using enhanced data rate for global (EDGE) technology.

However, EDGE network gear isn’t expected to be available until 2002 or later, said Callie Pottorf, an industry analyst at IDC, a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. And AT&T isn’t planning interim technology upgrades.

Gartner’s Egan warns that AT&T may have more of a challenge upgrading its network than some others. “AT&T has a patchwork quilt of network technologies with clever multimode handsets that glue the network together from an end-user’s standpoint,” Egan said. But in addition to TDMA and CDPD, AT&T is also still supporting its analogue network, he said.

Another carrier hard at work on a network upgrade is GTE Wireless. It will begin 3G1X trials this year and has plans to start deploying the new gear next year. GTE Wireless’ network is based on CDMA in the 800MHz spectrum band.

GTE Wireless now offers its customers SMS and ‘Net access data services at 14.4Kbps. The company has wireless Web business offerings in the works, but details are not yet available.

GTE Wireless expects to upgrade its network to 3G in 2002 or 2003, said Don Fye, director of network technology development at the carrier.

Bell Atlantic Mobile, which will soon be merged with Vodafone AirTouch and eventually with GTE Wireless if both mergers are approved, also has its sights set on a 3G upgrade.

The yet-to-be-named combined company will have more than 23 million customers and will be the largest domestic wireless service provider. But that doesn’t put Bell Atlantic Mobile ahead of the pack in upgrading its network infrastructure.

Bell Atlantic Mobile currently offers wireless Internet access over a CDMA network in the 800MHz spectrum band and a CDPD network. Dick Lynch, the carrier’s chief technology officer, said he knows firsthand that accessing Microsoft Outlook from his wireless phone is downright “painful” at 14.4Kbps. But it’s better than no access at all, he said.

Lynch said Bell Atlantic Mobile is aggressively rolling out 3G1X services this year, which will mean wireless transmission speeds up to 144Kbps. While Lynch wouldn’t pinpoint an availability date, he said “it won’t be snowing when we make the announcement.”

Although Bell Atlantic Mobile is offering CDPD services now, Lynch predicts it will be “gracefully transitioned” to IP packet-based services that will run over its CDMA network.

Whether business users are accessing their corporate networks over a CDPD or CDMA network isn’t as important as their ability to mimic the same capabilities they have on their desktops, handsets, PDAs or even laptops with a wireless modem. Without the ability to quickly and easily link up, business users will continue to only tiptoe into wireless data service offerings, experts say.